Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Vice-Presidential Debate and the Abortion Question

Martha Raddatz: “This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.”

A fair question by Raddatz, completely muffed by Biden and partially muffed by Ryan. Biden styles himself as a dedicated Catholic who thinks his religion should play no role in his public position on abortion whatsoever: “I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that—women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor.” Abortion on demand is OK with Biden and certainly supported by the Democratic Party and its line-up of convention speakers.

Ryan’s answer was unfortunately very short because he deferred too much to Raddatz: “The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.” The position is better than Biden’s, but it doesn’t quite answer Raddatz’s question: “. . . tell me what role religion has played in your own personal views. . .”

This would have been a wonderful opportunity to explain to the world exactly why the Catholic Church holds its pro-life position and why this goes to the essence of the human relationship—one’s personal relationship—with God. And this could have been explained very simply, in one paragraph, as follows:

The Catholic Church has a view of the human self which is radically different from that of ‘liberalism’ in the broad sense of the word. The Church holds that people to the core of their beings are creatures, i. e., created by God, oriented toward God, for the purpose of receiving God’s love and returning it in loving obedience. The Catholic belief is that this is the deep pattern of what it is to be human, and that is why human dignity, at all stages of life, is so important to the Church. This understanding goes back to the beginning of Christianity and is reflected in Augustine’s famous insight in Confessions, ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Human beings are created to be actively in search of God, whether they realize it or not, and they are happiest when they are acting in obedience, in response to God’s love, as they were created to do. St. Basil said it succinctly: “The love of God is not based on some discipline imposed on us from outside, but as a capacity and indeed a necessity it is a constitutive element of our rational being.” An attack on human life is, at its most basic, an attack on the deep reason for human life, relationship with God.

Well, I don’t expect a Vice-Presidential candidate to quote St. Augustine or St. Basil, but something on that order, with a finisher by Ryan that this is what he believed, would have made me get off the couch and cheer.

This human being, patterned for loving relationship with God is in relationship with God from conception to death—and of course, thereafter. All of Catholic social teaching and charity grows out of this single premise. It profoundly wrong for human beings to interfere with that relationship at their convenience or to degrade it by holding other human beings in contempt.

Now, if you dismiss the Catholic position as a spiritual fairy tale—then there is no reason not to kill inconvenient people, whether it’s an inconvenient human in the mother’s womb three months after conception, or an inconvenient human three months after birth, or a senior citizen who has become a drag on Obamacare. But if you do believe that human beings are in relationship with God ab ovo, then you cannot kill them: it would be a rejection of the human being, God, and their relationship.

The liberal self came into being in the thinking of Locke, Hume, Kant, and Mill, who together developed a lynchpin of classic liberalism: that people are free agents, morally and personally autonomous, who create themselves and their societies, but have no internal destiny.  God had not made the Lockean human being for relationship with himself and maybe not even for relationship with others. These assumptions, in many ways, carried forward into the social sciences, where we get creatures like “economic man” as either a determined chooser between goods or a rational one, but certainly not as a God-patterned one. The overall social assumption today is certainly the liberal one: however I got here, I now create myself (Satan’s delusion in Paradise Lost, by the way) and my freedom to do so is unquestionable. Sandra Day O’Connor in Planned Parenthood v. Casey voiced the beliefs of the liberal self more eloquently and succinctly than anyone: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

From the Catholic perspective, the idea that human beings can actually define the meaning of their own lives is an enormous metaphysical delusion, and it is a delusion that promotes just the kind of culture defended by O’Connor in Planned Parenthood v. Casey—a culture of death. A person who truly holds the Catholic understanding of what human beings are cannot support abortion or vote for candidates who do. Although there are exceptions for self-defense and the defense of others, we cannot violently end the life of a human being, made by God for relationship with God, in relationship with God, at any point.

Now, explaining all of this, even in brief, might not have been a selling point for Paul Ryan, but there it is.

[Note: I have amended the sentence beginning with "The liberal self . . ." in response to Josh Stein's comment. See below.]


  1. Setting aside the tragic readings of Hobbes and Locke above [Hobbes was explicitly *not* a tabula rasa theorist], there's some stuff in here that really is just staggering.

    "Now, if you dismiss the Catholic position as a spiritual fairy tale—then there is no reason not to kill inconvenient people, whether it’s an inconvenient human in the mother’s womb three months after conception, or an inconvenient human three months after birth, or a senior citizen who has become a drag on Obamacare."

    I realize that you're not a philosopher, Dr. Bernthal, but as a lawyer and scholar you know how counterfactuals work. I certainly hope you don't think that Catholic doctrine is a necessary condition for moral judgment, despite saying so in the quoted passage.

  2. You're right about Hobbes--my bad. It would have been more accurate for me to have said the liberal tradition, starting with Locke, Hume, Kant and Mill, all of whom, as far as I can tell, had a big part in forming the idea that human beings were personally and morally autonomous.

    How you can read anything I wrote as saying that "Catholic doctrine is a necessary condition for moral judgment" is beyond me. I thought I was implying the exact opposite--that the capacity for moral judgment is a gift, based on conscience. It is part of what makes us human. But I am arguing that moral judgment will go wrong if you begin with the wrong premise about what people are. The Catholic premise leads in a completely logical way to the judgment that abortion is wrong. On the other hand, if you believe that people are morally and personally autonomous, as Sandra Day O'Connor does, you easily get to what we have now: abortion on demand. If you are Catholic, you take most of what we are as given. If you are a classic liberal, human nature is much less determinate.

  3. The sentence that I quote in the comment explicitly articulates it as a necessary condition; it is out of sync with the rest of the commentary, which is why I point out that I think you're just misspeaking. The form: "If x, then y." is the articulation of a sufficient condition, which is what you actually have. "If [dismiss Catholic position], then [no reason not to kill inconvenient people]." The devil's in the syntax.

    Again, I'm worried about the historical knowledge Kant clearly does not qualify. It is Kant who argues that the presence of faculties of moral reasoning is an explicit demonstration of the existence of a sovereign God. [Transcendental Argument] Further, he too rejects tabula rasa as a concept, for much the same reason as Rousseau (which is actually just a more sophisticated articulation of what Hobbes seems to argue). Mixing rationalist like Kant with British empiricists is problematic on a lot of levels, but largely because their entire positions on the subject are informed by their view of human ontogeny, which differ explicitly. [The reason Locke is an individualist is precisely because, as you note, of his tabula rasa account.]

    But, yeah, Locke, Hume, Bentham, Mill, and later economists like Adam Smith, and Say, and Malthus. All of that is a part of the recognition of the "liberal" tradition.

  4. I see what you mean about syntax--and the liberal tradition, which you have a far better handle on than I do. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that the Catholic understanding of the self and its relation to God makes it impossible to hold that abortion is permissible, whereas, if you start with the idea of an autonomous self, as developed within the liberal tradition, then abortion becomes possible as a moral action, since you have no transcendent moral foundation that excludes it. It seems that this is how we get to Roe v. Wade, and Sandra Day O'Connor in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

    The liberal tradition seems to say that we are our own highest authority. This is why it is so hard to be a in politics in either party today and also Catholic. You can go a long way in the direction of social democracy and welfare and still arguably be within a Catholic tradition of balancing subsidiarity with solidarity. But you can't take the position of Sandra Day O'Connor and say that we are in charge of defining the meaning of existence for ourselves and make policy accordingly, with no sense of transcendent restraint or direction.

    This is why Biden's position is especially incoherent. Biden, is saying, on the one hand, abortion is universally morally wrong because God says so, on the other hand, it's OK to have an abortion, because the ultimate moral authority is in us. He sort of mumbled through the first part, because, I suppose, he sees the contradiction and the political liability. Ryan's position is not as bad as Biden's, because it doesn't go so far in allowing abortion, but it is still contradictory, since neither rape nor incest would justify the killing of an unborn human being. Though a great wrong has been done to the mother, depriving someone of life would be a much greater wrong than depriving the mother of liberty.

    Both Biden and Ryan are liberals, and both see the political dynamite, so neither confronted the question very directly.

  5. The Catholic tradition holds that the wrongness of killing innocent human beings is accessible to human reason, and so is available to those outside the Catholic tradition. So Josh and Craig would agree that no one needs to be Catholic to know that murder is wrong.
    But if one dismisses the whole Catholic position as a "fairy tale," then that includes rejecting natural law, which implies that there is no natural law restriction on positive law that would prevent it from allowing the killing of "inconvenient" human beings. So Craig's point is essentially correct, in spite of the "logical" critique.

  6. Josh may be over-interpreting Kant, too: Kant does not offer an "explicit demonstration of the existence of...God," but regards God a no more than a "postulate of practical reason." Kant is well-known for holding, as part of his "critique of pure reason," that God is a Noumenon, and thus not a possible object of human knowledge at all.
    I'm not a Kant scholar, but there are Kant scholars who see Kant as not very different from the empiricist Hume, except in Kant's German rationalist verbiage.

  7. Craig, I have no problem with articulating it as a *sufficient* condition. You can argue that the Catholic position on life [the position of the Church] leaves no room for abortion; that's fine.

    But then James does exactly the same thing that I took issue with Craig doing in the initial post. "if one dismisses the whole Catholic position as a "fairy tale," then that includes rejecting natural law..." is again postulating a necessary condition where it is clearly false. Can one be an atheist and a natural law theorist? Of course; that's what the entire debate about the naturalistic fallacy in modern ethics is about. Those positions clearly exist, so of course the Catholic position is in no way a necessary condition.

    Also, I'm not over-interpreting Kant. In Critique of Pure Reason he offers up arguments against the traditional ontological argument while maintaining God as a practical postulate; but in other works, particularly the aptly titled "The One [alt "Only"] Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God," he presents grounds for an explicit proof on the basis of a priori concepts. It just isn't an ontological argument. The Transcendental Argument is an attempt at explicit demonstration, and Kant holds it to be logically valid.

    As far as your argument that Biden's position is incoherent, I think you're perhaps being uncharitable in your reading. There is a difference between holding the view that abortion is morally wrong and the view that we ought to legislate against abortion, that it ought to be criminalized. These are clearly distinct positions. I can hold the view that action x is morally wrong but hold that, for various reasons, I ought not to enforce my view on others. After all, Jehovahs Witnesses believe that blood transfusions are morally wrong, but they don't seem to take an active interest in lobbying.

    The counter argument from the pro-life advocate is to say that if you believe that abortion harms a child, then you ought to maintain that abortion be criminalized, because it should be criminalized. Of course, the libertarian Catholic [which is how I'd classify Biden's position on the issue, along with the majority of American Catholics] is not arguing based on the content of the claim, but rather that because the claim is theologically derived, it ought not be legally enforced. [By the way, I think this is a good view, since contravening it has disastrous consequences and historically, my people have not fared all that well in states that allow for theological derivation of law.]

  8. Josh,
    I don't want this to turn into a "pissing contest" but doggone it, if natural law is "part" of the "whole" Catholic tradition, and one rejects the "whole" Catholic tradition, then one rejects the natural law "part" of it. An atheist can be a natural law theorist, indeed, but if an atheist believes in natural law, then that atheist is agreeing with the "part" of the Catholic tradition that says that there is natural law, and is not regarding the whole tradition as a fairy tale, certainly not the natural law part, at least. The atheist and the Catholic agree on that substantial matter, and can probably agree on certain rational judgments based on natural law. (Think of Don marquis' argument that abortion is wrong; Marquis wrote as an atheist.) Perhaps you, Craig, and I can all agree on that.
    On Kant: You know this is a complicated issue, Josh. Interpretative questions on Kant, as with other philosophers, but particularly with Kant, often involve figuring out whether Kant can say what he says consistently with his own principles. If God is Noumenonal, and not a possible object of human experience or knowledge, all of which Kant holds, then the best Kant can do (consistently) is "postulate" God for the sake of practical reason, and cannot consistently claim to demonstrate that God exists. Why? Because a demonstation would constitute knowledge of metaphysical reality through pure reason, and a key point of the first Critique is to deny the possibility of that sort of knowledge.
    A more important point here is that Craig is basically right in everthing he says, and your criticisms--and even our exchange here--do not go to the heart of the matter. I see us as "muddying the waters" of Craig's excellent commentary. Can we "move on?" Can we go "Forward"?

  9. Two points -

    First, Hobbes is clearly part of the liberal tradition. He postulated a mechanical, scientific, atheistic view of the operation of nature and social systems. He helped inform the intellectual assumptions that gave rise to what we properly refer to as "liberalism."

    There seems to be a tendency among modern liberls to cherry-pick only those who they think reflect well on modern liberalism. This is an understandable attempt at propoganda, not history.

    Second, Jim is right. If anyone rejects the essential point of Catholicism that Craig is referring to - natural law, the intrinsic value of human beings, the idea that justice is treating things essentially the same as being the same - then abortion is a viable option.

    Thus, if a Muslim, Buddhist or Jain rejects those points, that is where they end up, even if they don't reject them as "Catholic." They may well view those points as being essential points of Islam, Buddhism or Jainism - or not.

    Shifting the discussion into some kind of attack on a perceived Catholic parochialism is a red herring.

  10. O.K. Re: Kant on God. James doesn't actually respond to my point, which is that there is an entire body of his literature which attempts to give an account of an affirmative argument for the existence of God, which Kant eventually accepts as logically valid. I don't mind using the Critique as an example of a text in which God operates strictly as a pragmatic postulate; it may be that TAG is subsumed into the class of arguments that he designates as fundamentally inaccessible, but the fact that it is not explicitly discussed in the critique is, I think, reason to leave that question open. At any rate, it isn't a particularly important issue here.

    Re: Catholic Tradition If your point is that rejection of Catholic moral teaching whole-cloth entails rejection of natural law theory, that's fine. But it in no way follows from the rejection of natural law, either, that "there is no reason not to kill inconvenient people" as Craig states. My point is that it is simply false to formulate it as a necessary condition, whether that necessary condition is natural law or the Catholic moral teaching as a whole. Peter, of course, does it himself, which is why I called Craig out on it, "If anyone rejects the essential point of Catholicism that Craig is referring to - natural law, the intrinsic value of human beings, the idea that justice is treating things essentially the same as being the same - then abortion is a viable option." It is a complete non-sequitur.

    By the way, I love sneaking in "the idea that justice is treating things as essentially the same as being the same" since "Justice as Fairness" is a concept explicitly tied up in the modern liberal tradition.

    Re: Hobbes, again. Obviously the reason that Craig had to remove Hobbes from the comment is that the description of liberalism that Hobbes gives is in no way compatible with Hobbes' account. Hobbes rejects tabula rasa, moral and personal autonomy, and this sort of personally-informed existentialism; all of those rejections are explicit in Leviathan. As for Hobbes "postulated a mechanical, scientific, atheistic view of the operation of nature and social systems," this is partly true, though what we understand as contemporary experimental science was something he took serious issue with [see his writing on Boyle, who he regarded as a moron]. But he wasn't an atheist. He disliked the Church, largely for political reasons. He rejected dualism, for various reasons. But he was still a theist, and God fit very much into his cosmology [though not unproblematically, largely as a result of the monism].

    Was Hobbes theologically radical? Absolutely. This is why many religious figures at the time actually explicitly refer to him as an atheist. However, he just isn't in the way we use the term. Elements of Law includes an explicit Cosmological Argument. In Answers to Bishop Brahmall, he argues at length for various properties that he believes God to have, including extension. Most significantly, though, Chapter 37 of Leviathan includes a positive account of miracles that is considerably weaker than the later formulation popularized by Hume, and acknowledges demarcation between genuine and false miracles... So, yeah, there's that.