A Different Kind of Pro-Life Argument

Misology is a neologism, coined by Plato, to name the hatred of argument, and not in the sense of a quarrel or domestic squabble. Misology names the hatred of logos; it is the hatred of reason and rational discourse. It is a commonplace in our culture today that we are deadlocked when it comes to the topic of abortion, and it is easy to grow weary of defending arguments against abortion.

There exists, after all, no dearth of arguments in defense of life made in response to pro-abortion views. Abortion is defended as rooted in bodily autonomy, or as safer than childbirth; pro-lifers reply. Pro-choice advocates use economic arguments to support abortion, and are answeredagain and again. Abortion is defended utilizing imaginative analogies (e.g., imagine you are a famous violinist suddenly forced to serve as a living dialysis machine for another person for nine months!); and pro-lifers reply (repeatedly). Abortion is defended on constitutional grounds (and better defenses of abortion are being planned); pro-lifers argue that such grounds are fraught with various philosophical and jurisprudential problems. We could go on. Indeed, we mustn’t give up arguing.

As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued nearly forty years ago, our public debates about abortion rest upon conceptually incommensurable premises. That is, we accept no common ground by which to measure or compare the truth of our starting points, which lead us to our conclusions for or against abortion. We never make any headway because we almost literally cannot understand where the other guy is coming from. MacIntyre understatedly observes: “Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.”

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The cause of this “shrill tone” has long been known. In one of his final philosophical conversations about the nature of piety and holiness, Socrates asks his interlocutor, Euthyphro, which are the subjects where we are prone to anger or enmity when we disagree with each other on the truth of the matter. They usually do not involve things which are countable or measurable. Rather, “these enmities arise when the matters of difference are the just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable.” Perhaps this is because the standard of good and evil is not as palpably obvious as a meter stick.

In subsequent discussion, Socrates asks what has come to be called the “Euthyphro question,” or, “Whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?” We can rephrase this in terms of our choices as follows: Is something good because we choose it, or do we choose it because it is good?

There are cases where it is clear enough that something is good because we choose it. Sometimes this “we” is actually the collective we and determined representatively through various civil laws. For instance, it is good to drive on this side of the road and to obey this speed limit, because they have been chosen by the lawmaker. Of course, we could ask, “Why is it that this speed limit is good?” The answer would be: “Because a higher speed limit is dangerous.” If we keep going and ask, Socrates-like, whether we choose bodily safety and integrity because it is good, or if it is good only because we choose it, the answer is clearly the first.

One begins to suspect that all cases where we appear to assign what is good, whether by personal choices or legal measures, can eventually be rooted in something that is good not because it is chosen, but because it is so due to its very nature—a “good” in a higher sense than the legally good. Do such goods exist? If so, is one of them a criterion by which we can settle the abortion debate once and for all?

In a recent book defending the humanity of the human embryo, its authors point out that such a criterion could be established in the two ways already indicated by Socrates. The criterion by which we determine what counts as a human being is either decided or discovered. Either the embryo is human because we designate it as such, or it is human already and we can only recognize this fact. As one might suspect, there are scores of scholars lining up to defend each alternative. There is not enough space here to enter into the fray of those debates. We will have to be satisfied, at present, with something more concrete, something a bit more abstract, and something more ultimate.

As for the more concrete, we have some personal testimony. Consider an article written six years ago by Mary Elizabeth Williams, “So What If Abortion Ends Life?” Williams gives us a clear-eyed assessment of her approach to abortion:

When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory. I have friends who have referred to their abortions in terms of “scraping out a bunch of cells” and then a few years later were exultant over the pregnancies that they unhesitatingly described in terms of “the baby” and “this kid.” I know women who have been relieved at their abortions and grieved over their miscarriages. Why can’t we agree that how they felt about their pregnancies was vastly different, but that it’s pretty silly to pretend that what was growing inside of them wasn’t the same? Fetuses aren’t selective like that. They don’t qualify as human life only if they’re intended to be born.

This call for logical consistency is met with a frightening moral probity:

Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.

That is, in view of the mother’s other, future children, the current child is “a life worth sacrificing,” Williams concludes. It is worth reflecting upon, in an era so intoxicated by the primacy of personal choice, whether such a power of choice is ultimately self-consistent. Is what is chosen a “good” merely because it is chosen by me, and that’s that, without any further qualification?

The “Euthyphro question” returns again. Is there no way out of it? Why can’t we simply be made to see?

Now for the slightly more abstract: Pascal’s famous observation that “the heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing” is, I think, better put by Saint Exupéry: “One sees well only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.” I interpret Saint Exupéry to mean that seeing with the heart implies the ability to see things as good. Our minds understand the meaning behind visible things and thereupon our hearts rejoice in their goodness.

The inability to see things as good, or to see reality in their goodness, is a spiritual blindness. Yet it is not a complete blindness, because we can still understand many things about reality, and even do so accurately. But we will be missing something. “I see what you see, but I see more.” Such “seeing without seeing” is illustrated well by “Men Against Fire,” an episode from that Twilight Zone of our times, Black Mirror. It depicts ethnic cleansing carried out by soldiers who have had their senses reprogrammed so as to be unable to pity their victims because they literally cannot see them as human.

Such lack of sight is a two-edged sword. We are intoxicated with pure individualism and the primacy of personal choice. This is our wounded, fallen nature. It leads some to exalt a social order which exists to enforce and protect pure individualism. Others require society to define any collective good in such a way as to be entirely subservient to pure individual liberty. Both ends of this political spectrum lead—from the same source—to different “partial visions” of reality.

We close with the ultimate. Is this primacy of personal choice a self-consistent position? When considering the justice and mercy of God, St. Thomas asks if there is justice and mercy in absolutely everything that God does. He considers this objection:

Further, it is the part of justice to render what is due, but of mercy to relieve misery. Thus both justice and mercy presuppose something in their works: whereas creation presupposes nothing. Therefore in creation neither mercy nor justice is found.

St. Thomas provides most of the resources to answer this objection in his reply. St. Thomas reaches his conclusion by arguing that any act of God’s justice is founded upon His mercy.

Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon. For nothing is due to creatures, except for something pre-existing in them, or foreknown. Again, if this is due to a creature, it must be due on account of something prior. And since we cannot go on to infinity, we must come to something that depends only on the goodness of the divine will—which is the ultimate end. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; and his being man is on account of the divine goodness. So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy.

To recap: Aquinas is arguing that, simply speaking, God does not owe a creature anything. If there is something that is owed a creature by God, this is on the qualification of something which it already has, and if it is in turn owed that, this is again because of “something prior.” His example is helpful. Why are we owed hands? Because our rational nature “demands” them. Without hands, we could not fulfill our end goals as political, inquisitive, technologically-minded beings. (Take an analogous example: If by nature we had no mouths or tongues, but still had the capacity and desire for speech, this would be unjust. A lion without sharp teeth would not be a just natural state.)

However, why are we owed reason? Because it is part of what it means to be human. Why, however, are we owed humanity? Here the inquiry halts. We are not owed humanity on the basis of something in us because we are human by our nature. We haven’t an ontological leg to stand on for a hoped-for next step. We could ask why human beings exist, but this does not lead to something that we are owed, but rather to issues dealing with whether human beings must be a part of the goodness of the entire created universe at all.

Why I or you are here is not due to what we are owed, but is due to something beyond justice: “Mercy and truth are necessarily found in all God’s works, if mercy be taken to mean the removal of any kind of defect.” The defect which creation remedies is the very non-existence of the creature. Creation is a mercy extended to that which God creates. It is mercy, not justice, that is at the root of our being human, because there is no basis in justice whereby God owes us existence.

This is the ultimate pro-life argument. Human beings can make demands in justice because of our origin in God’s mercy. Indeed, God’s mercy is found in all subsequent effects, St. Thomas argues, and is carried out by all creatures.

Some would say this is not a particularly helpful apologetic argument. However, it is the ultimate argument for those who can see already. If we follow the argument, we can see what we have seen before, yet see more. If mercy is to be found in every corner of creation, do we see this from our end of the political spectrum? Perhaps after such an effort to see we will see more clearly how to help others.

(Photo credit: March for Life, 2018; Jonah McKeown / CNA)


  • John G. Brungardt

    John G. Brungardt earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from The Catholic University of America in 2016 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago.

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