Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Prolife pragmatism

If abortion is murder, the most efficient thing you could have done to prevent such murders this month was to kill George Tiller…So is Roeder getting support from the nation's leading pro-life groups? Not a bit. They have roundly denounced the murder.

I applaud these statements. They affirm the value of life and nonviolence, two principles that should unite us. But they don't square with what these organizations purport to espouse: a strict moral equation between the unborn and the born. If a doctor in Kansas were butchering hundreds of old or disabled people, and legal authorities failed to intervene, I doubt most members of the National Right to Life Committee would stand by waiting for "educational and legislative activities" to stop him. Somebody would use force.

The reason these pro-life groups have held their fire, both rhetorically and literally, is that they don't really equate fetuses with old or disabled people. They oppose abortion, as most of us do. But they don't treat abortionists the way they'd treat mass murderers of the old or disabled. And this self-restraint can't simply be chalked up to nonviolence or respect for the law. Look up the bills these organizations have written, pushed, or passed to restrict abortions. I challenge you to find a single bill that treats a woman who procures an abortion as a murderer. They don't even propose that she go to jail.


What are we to make of this challenge?

First thing I’d say is that there’s something diabolical about Saletan’s argument. On the one hand, liberals are eager to pin the blame for the firebombing of an abortion clinic or assassination of an abortionist on the prolife movement as a whole. Blanket guilt-by-association–even though these are very rare incidents which are sincerely disowned by mainstream prolife organizations.

On the other hand, you have liberals like Saletan who positively taunt prolifers to either systematically target abortionists and abortion clinics or else recant their entire position.

But by issuing that challenge, Saletin is inciting the prolife community to foment violence. Suppose we were to call his bluff in the way he has chosen to frame the alternatives? That can go either of two ways.

Secondly, some prolifers like Doug Wilson, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Greg Koukl have, in fact, responded to this challenge. When, however, they rise to the challenge, they are faulted for offering merely pragmatic or utilitarian counterarguments. So what are we to make of that criticism?

i) To begin with, if the objection is that prolifers are inconsistent on this point, then a pragmatic/utilitarian counterargument is perfectly adequate. That answers the critic on his own terms.

A prolifer doesn’t have to demonstrate that violence resistance is intrinsically wrong–in any and all analogous situations. He only has to show that there is no logical inconsistency on the part of nonviolent prolifers. The fact that the counterargument happens to pragmatic/utilitarian is wholly irrelevant to whether or not it successfully relieves the alleged inconsistency. A prolifer doesn’t need to prove that violent resistance is intrinsically wrong to rebut the charge of hypocrisy.

It’s sufficient to show that the inexorable logic of Saletan is not, in fact, inexorable. Is, in fact, fallacious. A pragmatic/utilitarian counterargument will suffice to invalidate his objection.

ii) In addition, it is quite unreasonable to demand that prolifers be able to draw a bright line between licit and illicit violence.

Borderline cases are commonplace in ethics. This crops up quite often in medical ethics and military ethics, to take two fields that must often deal with life and death decisions.

Should we taunt our soldiers to either be wanton killers or resign their commission unless they have snappy answers for every conceivable dilemma?

Should we taunt our doctors to either be butchers or leave the medical profession unless they have snappy answers for every conceivable dilemma?

There’s no reason to hold prolifers to a different standard than doctors and soldiers–to name a few.


  1. Not only that, but the whole reasoning is flawed in the first place (which you already know, of course, but which I want to point out for others).

    The state can execute people. I personally cannot unless I am acting as an agent of the state. If I act on my own, I am a murderer even if the victim was already condemned by the state.

    In other words, suppose that it's 1850 and a murder is about to be hanged. If I shoot the guy, I'm a murderer and should justly be hanged too. I do not have the right to take upon myself on my own whims powers that are designated solely to the state.

    Therefore, if the state does not execute someone, I do not have the right to trump the state and execute that person anyway.

  2. I always marvel at the challenge, "If abortion is murder, what would you do with the women who have them?"

    You might as well ask an enviro-idolator, "If excess oil consumption is destroying our Earth, what do you propose we do with people who buy and drive gas guzzling SUVs?"

    If either activity were actually illegal, then I would propose we would be perfectly justified to throw the perpetrators (and their accomplices) into jail. What's wrong with that?