On Abortion

This piece is not about abortion. The recent Planned Parenthood scandal may have been the impetus for this discussion, but this is not about abortion. The insidious defenders of Planned Parenthood may think they are having a conversation about abortion, but they are not talking about abortion. On the surface, the Christians and atheists, the agnostics and materialists, the liberals and the conservatives, may seem to be in a dialogue, or more often than not, an ad hominem-laced bout of verbal pugilism, over abortion, but alas, they are not. What we are talking about is ethics, and modern “ethics” appears to be little more than manipulation dolled up and presented as moral discourse.

Most of us are familiar with the following colloquialism: “Don’t talk about religion or politics at the dinner table.” One would be lacking in social niceties if they were to violate this cultural norm. The implicit assumption in the preceding statement is that we don’t discuss these areas at the dinner table because there is no RIGHT answer, there is no definitive TRUTH, and so the argument is incapable of coming to an end, and more likely than not, it will be the cause of hurt feeling and alienation.

Moral debates seem unable to find a terminus. There seems to be no end to these ethical questions. Most of us accept this as a truism. Yet we continue to argue and make our case, while psychologically burying the necessary conclusion: that if there is no “right answer,” then all we are doing is trying to manipulate those who hold opinions other than our own to accept our position. Ethics becomes nothing over and above manipulation, a practice, ironically, that almost all would call unethical. The “enlightened” among us, after arguing for the authenticity of their position, often attempt to soften the blow of their manipulation with sophomoric nods to open-mindedness such as: “That’s the great thing about America; we are all entitled to our opinions.”  

Take a look at the following three arguments for and against abortion, as presented by Alasdair MacIntyre in his monumental achievement of an ethical treatise After Virtue (Keep in mind, we are not talking about abortion).

Argument 1:

Everybody has certain rights over his or her own person, including his or her own body. It follows from the nature of these rights that, at the stage when the embryo is essentially part of the mother’s body, the mother has a right to make her own, un-coerced decision on whether she will have an abortion or not. Therefore abortion is morally permissible and ought to be allowed by law. 

Argument 2:

I cannot will that my mother should have had an abortion when she was pregnant with me, except perhaps if it had been certain that the embryo was dead or gravely damaged. But if I cannot will this in my own case, how can I consistently deny to others the right to life that I claim for myself? I would break the so-called golden rule unless I denied that a mother has, in general, a right to an abortion.

Argument 3:

Murder is wrong. Murder is taking of innocent life. An embryo is an identifiable individual, differing from a newborn infant only in being at an earlier stage on the long road to adult capacities, and if any life is innocent, that of an embryo is. If infanticide is murder, as it is, abortion is murder. So abortion is not only morally wrong, but ought to be legally prohibited.

Herein lies the problem with the proceeding arguments: they are all right! Lower case "r" right, that is. That is to say, they are all logically valid arguments. Their conclusions follow from their given premises. This is a strange set of circumstances indeed, and even stranger waters in which to navigate an ethical debate. The battleground is staged in such a way as to allow for only a few outcomes:

1.)   Justice becomes the advantage of the stronger. That is to say, those more skilled in the art of rhetoric will “win” the debate on the basis that the verbosity of their elocution renders their interlocutor vulnerable and unable to counter with the same oratory arsenal. I.E.: The smart guy wins.

2.)   The argument ends with each side utterly confused as to how their opponent can’t manage to see the lucidity and accuracy of their position.

3.)   The argument ends with the previously stated colloquial naivety: “Well, we can all have our own opinions.”

So mustn’t we conclude that the practice of ethical argumentation is a fool’s errand? Is it not polishing brass on the proverbial sinking ship? Shouldn’t we enlightened moderns recognize this interminability and cast aside ethics as a genuine pursuit, and rather, on utilitarian grounds, leave our moral decisions to be decided by the general will?

Rather than relegating ethics to the court of public opinion, a motley crew if there ever was one, ethics needs only to trace its genealogy to its philosophical patriarch: epistemology. If you go back and re-examine the three arguments on abortion, you will see, on the surface, a consistency internal to its own logic. BUT there seems to be, beneath the waters, a quiet and dangerous arbitrariness to the presuppositions of the arguer. This lack of epistemological awareness is an aggressive cancer that undermines ethics on all levels. It is a silent cancer; one we are unaware of. And it has killed most arguments before they have even taken flight.

The first argument just presupposes, or casually takes for granted the assumption that: “Everybody has certain rights over his or her own person, including his or her own body.” This seems self-evident, does it not? It seems like common sense. But alas, common sense is not common to all. If it were, we wouldn’t be having these debates. So we must ask why and where. Why do you have these certain rights over your own person and where did these rights come from?

The second argument assumes that there is some universal moral imperative commanding me to not: “break the so-called golden rule.” Here we must go to journalism 101. Why should I not break this rule? Where did this rule come from? What makes it binding? Why should I care?!

The third argument assumes: murder is wrong. Why is murder wrong? Aren’t I nothing over and above a conglomeration of cosmic debris?

Why ought you to continue reading?

Because you want to understand that we can’t practice ethics in any meaningful way without questioning epistemology. So we must ask ourselves, what epistemological assumptions are needed to render ethics meaningful? What assumptions end the trap of interminability? What assumption carries a weighty forcefulness? We need to talk about abortion, badly, desperately. But this is not about abortion, because before we can talk about abortion we need to recover the lost underpinnings of all discourse. We need consistent epistemology.