Philosophy Weekend: A Tough Question

Bill Vallicella, who blogs as the Maverick Philosopher and often argues for conservative political and social positions, asks a provocative question:

If you are a pacifist, why aren’t you also pro-life? If you oppose the killing of human beings, how can you not oppose the killing of defenseless human beings, innocent human beings?

You call yourself a liberal. You pride yourself on ‘speaking truth to power’ and for defending the weak and disadvantaged. Well, how much power do the unborn wield?

I am a liberal and a pacifist, and I know this is a serious question, so I’d like to answer. Then I’d like to ask the Maverick Philosopher (and anyone else who would like to respond) a serious question in return.

As a pacifist (and, more simply, as a human being) I care about all living things, and this care does extend to the unborn. I feel that every abortion is tragic, and I have never advocated abortion as a personal choice.

But, being pro-choice and being pro-abortion are completely different things. I am not pro-abortion, but I am pro-choice. I know that many sane and reasonable women have chosen abortion and will continue to choose abortion (whether it is legal or not). Whether or not I would make the same choice in their position, I cannot support a law that takes away their right to make this decision, even though the decision differs from the decision I would make.

Is there a correspondence between being pro-choice and making a choice to have an abortion? I suspect that there isn’t. A list of abortion statistics by U.S. state shows that there are lots of abortions in so-called “red states” like Kansas and Texas, just as there are in “blue states” like New York and Massachusetts. I bet that many women who profess to be pro-life have abortions, and I know there are many women who are fervently pro-choice who would never choose abortion for themselves. Bill Vallicella may be correct that a pacifist will recoil at the idea of abortion — but he is wrong to imply that this has anything to do with the political controversy regarding the legality of abortion.

I hope this answers the Maverick Philosopher’s question, and here’s my question back: how can you claim to be a libertarian, and yet want the government to outlaw abortion?

If you don’t believe it the government’s place to manage anyone’s economy, health care or education, how can it be the government’s place to intrude on one of the most deeply personal and difficult decisions a woman or a woman’s family has to make? If you’re a libertarian, don’t you want to reduce the government’s power to intrude into private life? You can’t be a libertarian and not be pro-choice — the combination of the two would be an oxymoron.

This is why presidential candidate Herman Cain got himself all tangled up in a much-publicized TV interview this week. He first claimed to absolutely support the Republican platform on abortion, but reversed this a few sentences later: “The government shouldn’t be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to a social decision that they need to make.”

He has spent the days since this confusing interview trying to clarify an unclarifiable position. In fact, Herman Cain appears to be a true libertarian and not a true advocate of laws against abortion. You can’t have it both ways. If the Maverick Philosopher or anybody else thinks it’s possible to be so against big government as to not even empower the government to regulate health insurance (a big part of Obamacare) yet to support the government’s right to intrude on a woman’s ability to make a decision that many women currently make, I’d really like to hear the rationale. I think it’s an obvious fact that anybody who wants a government — federal, state, any government — to outlaw abortion is not a libertarian at all.

UPDATE: Bill Vallicella has responded to this post (and, most importantly, clarifies in his response that he is not actually a libertarian). I plan to write more about this soon.

19 Responses

  1. If you believe a fetus is a
    If you believe a fetus is a person, intervention to keep it from being harmed by others is justified. This includes government action. It is the same as using the police to stop one person from killing another. Believing abortion is a form of murder and still allowing it to happen is the true hypocrisy.

  2. If you agree that aborting a
    If you agree that aborting a fetus and killing an innocent human being are the same, then it’s not good enough to say that, while you don’t support abortions themselves, you support their legality because, after all, people are going to have them anyway. You might as well say, “I myself wouldn’t commit murder, but I know that many people do it, and I don’t want to take away anyone’s right to choose whether or not to kill people.”

    You could frame any prohibitive law as an infringement on our “right to choose,” and it is, but that, in part, is what laws are about: denying us the right to choose to do immoral things — rob people, drive drunk, whatever.

    I myself am very pro-choice, but you can’t make an argument in favor of “choice” without addressing the morality of what’s being chosen or not chosen, unless you simply believe that people should always be able to choose to do whatever they want without penalty, no matter how immoral it is. If you believe that abortion is completely, unequivocally wrong — which you didn’t say, but Vallicella implied it, and you didn’t argue against it — then it doesn’t make sense to be pro-choice; if you believe that innocents are being wronged, then it makes sense to support laws that would protect those innocents.

    The issues of morality and legality are not separate. Do you believe abortion is wrong? If not, why not? (Those, I think, are the real questions.)

  3. ____I cannot support a law
    ____I cannot support a law that takes away their right to make this decision, even though the decision differs from the decision I would make______

    But, you are fine with a law that takes away the right of a person to earn as much money as they can.

    Why is one “right” ok to take away but another is not?

    So many times people say what you’ve said, but when push comes to shove the abortion right is the one set aside as unassailable whereas other rights aren’t that big a deal.

    In the recent fights among congress and the white house, Obama drew the line at not cutting any support for abortion. That was his one thing he would not budge on. Why is that the most important thing not to cut budget for?

    Check out Nat Hentoff

    Check out Prepersons by Phillip K Dick

    Check out Molech in Ginsburg’s poem and in the Old Testament.

    Check out the huge industry that abortion is.

    ::::::What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

    Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!:::::::::::


  4. Levi, I think that
    Levi, I think that libertarians who want the government to intervene and outlaw abortion are really social conservatives in libertarian disguise. As for your first question, about being a liberal and a pacifist and yet not being pro-life, I think the issue of the viability of the fetus resolves that seeming paradox. If don’t consider the fetus before the viability period to be a baby or a life, then you are not being inconsistent at all.

  5. Thanks for the responses so
    Thanks for the responses so far.

    To Nardo and Brett, I’d like to point out that nobody has proposed a way to stop abortions from happening. Women choose to have abortions whether they are legal or not. A law against abortion is an unenforceable law.

    Therefore, I do not think this issue can be framed as an urgent issue of saving the lives of the unborn. Those politicians (like Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, etc.) who are campaigning on a pro-life platform are campaigning on a promise to permit the government a new way to prosecute citizens, without any realistic expectation that giving this power to the government will actually stop abortions from taking place.

    No honest libertarian can choose to empower the government to intrude this way into private life and still claim to be a libertarian.

  6. While laws against abortion
    While laws against abortion won’t get rid of the practice, they can reduce its occurrence and drive it underground. Again, the worst of both worlds for people who are both pro-choice and pro-life, but the law can be enforced. It’s like Prohibition in the US. Plenty of people were arrested for violating it and the laws reduced consumption of alcohol, even though it made drinking a costlier problem overall by removing safety regulations and competition.

  7. “But, you are fine with a law
    “But, you are fine with a law that takes away the right of a person to earn as much money as they can . . . Why is one “right” ok to take away but another is not?”

    are you friggin’ kidding me? wow …. jesus h …

    speaking of jesus, where has he been for the last few centuries of bible study?….

    “Check out the huge industry that abortion is.”

    wow, just wow… are you for real?


  8. Levi, laws against theft and
    Levi, laws against theft and murder and rape don’t (and can’t) stop everyone from stealing, killing, or raping, but we still support those laws. Surely a law against abortion would be even less effective than those ones, but if you believe abortion is totally wrong, it still makes sense to do whatever can be done to limit its occurrence, right? Presumably a law against it would bring about at least a couple fewer abortions a year.

    And Claudia, I don’t think there’s a firm enough line between viability and unviability for us to use the same line to mark the starting point of human life — in fact, I believe the line shifts as medical care for premature infants improves, and one can easily imagine a future in which, say, a 14-week-old fetus could, with the aid of technology, survive outside the womb. Does that mean that, while it’s ethical to abort that fetus now, it’ll be unethical to do so after another century of medical progress? Doesn’t it seem awfully arbitrary to let the quality of our neonatologists (who, after all, are better now than they were 20 years ago) determine the beginning of human life? It would mean that the definition of “baby” or “life” or “human being” or whatever would constantly be changing, expanding.

    It doesn’t give me much pleasure to try to articulate the pro-life position — because, as I said, I really am very vehemently pro-choice — but these particular pro-choice arguments seem weak to me.

  9. I believe that until a baby
    I believe that until a baby is born, it is a part of the mother’s body and she may choose the its course.

    Conservative Christians quote a verse from Psalms in which someone, possibly King David, says to God, “You have formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” But also in the Old Testament, it says in Deuteronomy that if a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, the father shall take the son before the elders and stone him to death.

    I know, pro-lifers say, “Well, the son was rebellious. The little baby was innocent.” But these same Christians say that when you reach the “age of accountability,” you will burn in hell for eternity unless you accept Jesus as your saviour. Even though God made our brain with the ability to doubt illogical things. I would rather be aborted up front and avoid the fear and struggle with issues of faith and burning in hell.

    Or maybe some pro-lifers don’t base their stance on the Bible. They just have a feeling inside that it’s wrong to abort babies but okay to blow up thousands of people in other countries.

  10. Brett, it’s true that the
    Brett, it’s true that the shifting line of viability and un-viability (as scientific discoveries make viability possible earlier and earlier) makes the issue of abortion more complex. Like you, though, I remain pro-life and, somehow, however much it shifts, the issue of viability still plays a major role in my thoughts on abortion. Claudia

  11. Brett, since you say you are
    Brett, since you say you are pro-choice but not for the reasons Claudia or I state, I’m curious — why are you pro-choice?

    The way I see it, the fact that anti-abortion laws are ineffective and can’t be enforced sweeps all ethical, spiritual and personal aspects of the debate aside. No matter what, the government has no business creating laws that it can’t enforce. To attempt to enforce laws that large segments of society have already vowed to reject and disobey is the opposite of libertarianism. It’s top-down big-government social engineering.

  12. If I were a woman and found
    If I were a woman and found myself to be pregnant, I would certainly appreciate having a choice in the matter. It’s either choice or a government telling me I have to give birth to a baby that grew within my own womb. Does anyone seriously think having choice is somehow inferior to having no choice?

  13. “To attempt to enforce laws
    “To attempt to enforce laws that large segments of society have already vowed to reject and disobey is the opposite of libertarianism.”

    Well, yeah, that’s true, but I’m not a libertarian, and neither are you, so does that matter to us? (It’s a good rebuttal to Vallicella, though.)

    Sorry for my delayed response. I am pro-choice, and the reason, I guess, is that I’m not really hung up on the whole sanctity-of-human-life thing. I’m still against murder, of course, simply because I believe that the world would be a nicer place to live in if we didn’t go around killing each other, but I’m not so convinced of our specialness or sacredness as a species that I can’t also see that the world’s a nicer place if we allow abortions. If this, too, is “murder,” then so be it, but I’m not sure it is murder as much as it is a woman simply declining to house another human being inside her body who has lodged himself there without her permission. Once you’ve given birth, then, I feel, you’ve signed a tacit contract to take care of the child or to make sure that someone else will take care of him, but before that, if a fetus is growing inside you and you don’t want to be a mother, I don’t think that you should have to let it stay in there. It’s your body, not anyone else’s.

  14. Well said, Brett. I agree.
    Well said, Brett. I agree. And let me add this: Abortion is not murder. “Murder” is a legal term. There is premedited murder, manslaughter, and a whole gamut of other terms designed to fit particular situations. Taking a life is not always defined as murder.

  15. Viability opens another box.
    Viability opens another box. A baby is not able to take of itself till when? Is that not viability? Is viability defined as when extra ordinary medical efforts are no longer needed? Well that is always changing with the advent of more knowledge and the viability level is getting earlier and earlier. That baby’s viability is no more answered at 3 months then 3 years after birth. Both need help to survive. In the end it is about rights I guess, when does that baby or the fetus rights become more important than the mother’s. Before Roe v Wade it was at conception I guess, after Roe it became at birth, then partial birth abortion threw another level in.

  16. Murder is a term that is
    Murder is a term that is defined by a legal definition. What is murder in one place is not murder in another. Example if ine sees a person looking through their window in Texas on ecan shoot them and it is seen as self defense. In my state that person better in your house and threatening you. If they are in your house and leaving, you better pull them back inside the house if you shoot them and it better not be in the back. Also murder was never defined as murder. Before Roe v Wade doctors were arrested for performing an illegal medical procedure not for murder. Women who agreed to an abortion were never arrested for murder. A women who lead an unhealthy life style be drugs drinking smoking what ever and the fetus died were never arrested. Partial birth abortions may be illegal but not boozing and drugging. Certainly some really hazy areas.

  17. Please note: Bill Vallicella
    Please note: Bill Vallicella has responded to this post (and, most importantly, clarifies in his response that he is not actually a libertarian). I plan to write more about this soon. (I’ve also added this update to the main body of the post above).

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