Wednesday, November 10, 2004

An exchange on pro-choice logic (Part 5)

(Continued ...)

Your dog analogy is problematic, isn't it? Sure, calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg, but what DOES make it one? I was reading recently about an Olympic hurdler in the 60s who failed her gender test and was barred from competition. She was chromosomally male but genitally female. Susan Fausto-Sterling, a biologist at Brown and the author of the book I read about this in, says that science simply cannot sex you scientifically--it must decide what the criteria are (genitalia, chromosomes, whatever else might bear on the question), and it can apply the criteria scientifically, but the criteria themselves are arbitrary. So I don't know--should I just dismiss this as "postmodernism"? (The Olympic Committee, or whatever it's called, didn't do so--they reinstated her status and took back their decision, though of course long after her career was ruined and she'd been spit upon after she returned to her country in disgrace, etc.) Who says what's a leg and what's not? The leg-ologists, of course. [Abraham] Lincoln's dog metaphor only applies if we assume, as he seems to, that we all know exactly what a leg is, and are only talking about how to name this thing that we all of course understand because it's obvious. Which may be the case with legs, though I have my doubts, but it isn't the case, apparently when it comes to sex and gender, and it isn't the case with abortion either if you're a "pro-choice"-ist. You can pretend that a leg is a leg, a spade is a spade, a life is a life--or perhaps it's not pretending, perhaps a life simply is a life. But I think that someone who actually wanted to communicate with and persuade people of the opposite opinion would take on the question and not beg it, which was the thrust of my original response to the parody. It just seems to me that we're mostly content to divide ourselves into tribes and sing the jingle.
Here we go again. I'm not sure how profitable this line of discussion can be. Yet I think it's an important, so I'll try to say a bit more. First, calling a tail a leg or anything else doesn't "make" it anything, does it? Isn't a thing whatever it is whatever we call it? Now of course that's what the anti-essentialist questions: that natures exist at all. Yet I would not only contend that they do, but that anti-essentialists selectively acknowledge their existence. They are most always seen entering a building through its door, for instance, rather than trying to walk through the wall.

Second, your gender-bender example involves all sorts of unknown details, since I'm not acquainted with the (tragic) case. For example, I don't know whether the person was genitally "female" by virtue of a "sex change" or by some other act of God. But all of this is really beside the point in view of Aristotle's principle that fuzzy boundaries (which he recognized abundantly in nature) don't eradicate genus/species categories. In more recent times, scientists have trouble deciding whether to classify light as waves or particles, just like they have trouble deciding whether to classify a virus as organic or inorganic. But how does the existence of boundary difficulties in these kinds of examples compromise our otherwise very clear distinctions between particles and waves, or the organic and inorganic, or male and female, forsooth (now THERE'S a word!)?

Third, my students typically tend to assume that differences of opinion reduce to differences of perspective, which they think means these differences are beyond adjudication. But we all know some opinions that are simply stupid, just like this one. The most elementary lesson taught by Plato is that the sophist ends up hanging himself on his own "logic." Which brings us to the folly of the members of the Flat Earth Society: just assuming the world is flat won't flatten it, as Sir (now Saint) Thomas More pointed out to Thomas Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk.

Fourth, there are limits to our ability to persuade one another, as you point out; and this may be as distressing to some as it is boring to others. Joe's ability to persuade Roger of anything rests in part on the willingness of Roger to accept certain premises in common with Joe, as well as upon the soundness and cogency of Joe's argument. There are limits to this, however, as discussed previously. The court of ultimate appeal, of course, is the reality of the world, which, as Max Scheler (pictured right) notes, offers "resistance": the wall that the anti-essentialist refuses to try and walk through. At that point he may want to accuse the essentialist of begging the question, but he (the anti-essentialist) demonstrates by his own behavior that he accepts the existence of natures or essences (such as the solidity of walls), whatever he may say. So one test of the viability of a view of things is very likely the ability of a person to consistently live out the view. And I just don't quite see how the anti-essentialist manages it without being selective or inconsistent. While I admit, as Aristotle did, that there are fuzzy boundaries to various genera, I think (like him) that distinguishing between men and women is generally a task not condiserably more difficult than distinguishing between a dog's tail and his leg. But then, I've been called "dogmatic," "fundamentalist," along with all sorts of other names (though I'm not sure how any of that's relevant).
So you say that "I don't think there's any real need for an argument on this point," which I assume is the point of what's a life and what isn't, and I feel like I must be either a dolt or some spiritually craven fiend for falsity (and maybe I am), but I disagree. I don't think I'm arguing for a straight pro-choice platform but just quietly insisting that the issue is complex. I think the question of "where and why killing human lives is justifiable" is less interesting and also less important here. I don't know why I think that, though--interesting question.
I assure you that I have no wish to offend you. Maybe I was a bit blunt. Maybe there are complications. I know an acquaintance of mine just had a son whom she refused to abort even though he is mentally retarded, has cerebral palsy and is blind (his brain was growing outside his skull in the womb and required surgery upon delivery to correct that problem). Life can be complicated and often tragic, though often it seems like it's amidst the tragedies that God seems to pour out His most abundant and miraculous graces. But I feel a little like the British member of parliament who quit his party the day it simultaneously adopted a platform affirming abortion-rights and the protection of Gold Fish. Albert Camus (pictured right) wrote:
"The world expects of Christians that they will raise their voices so loudly and clearly and so formulate their protest that not even the simplest man can have the slightest doubt about what they are saying. Further, the world expects of Christians that they will eschew all fuzzy abstractions and plant themselves squarely in front of the bloody face of history. We stand in need of folk who have determined to speak directly and unmistakably and come what may, to stand by what they have said."
I view myself as an unworthy aspirant to that ideal-- an ideal, which, in my humble opinion, the Catholic Church has come very close to meeting, especially in the person of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. Not many people (Catholics included) may LIKE everything the Church stands for, but I doubt whether many have serious questions about what that stand is.

No organization comes close to having the network of social service programs for feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, assisting unwed mothers and battered wives, providing orphanages, etc.-- not even the United Nations. But amongst all these programs there is one thing that I've never heard called into doubt: the belief the life is sacred and that deliberate abortion is murder. If the Church is doing her job on this front, I'm not really too concerned if arguments fail to persuade, because I know when it comes right down to what's most important, people are far more apt to be persuaded by personal compassion than by an argument.
I don't know--it's an interesting question to me. Suppose you think that (in the context of this discussion, which I take to be a discussion of the moral and legal issues of the abortion question) that there is no substantive difference between a fetus and an abortionist, and I think there is. How do we proceed? We don't just look up the answer in the World Book Encyclopedia, do we? Categories are not absolute but creative, or so I've always thought. Do we determine the outcomes or results from the category assumptions and then backtrack, judging the assumptions accordingly? (I.e. you must be right, because your assumptions lead [let us say] to criminalizing of abortion, whereas mine [let us say] do not). But then we would have to know a priori that abortion should be criminalized, which is precisely what we want to find out. Do we manipulate categories creatively, just for the fun of it? Do we sit up all night, Quaker-style, praying and listening for an answer, and refusing to budge until consensus has been achieved? I can't think of a better way than that, but I'm not sure how philosophical it would be.
I don't have sufficient time here for this, but I wouldn't write off entirely the Quaker-style thing. At least, I agree with Pascal that spiritual and moral dispositions affect how we see the "data." Love opens our eyes to things that others (who don't love or who hate) are blind to. Etc. So I would want to say something about the importance of this factor in the background. The other thing might be to go take a look at the abortion scene and, if possible, to witness an abortion, or watch one on TV or something. Talking to women who have been through abortions is eye-opnening. The repression, sublimation, and scarring are beyond imagining. Then there's the carnage of the act itself, which is awful to behold. There's always a chance that none of this would affect one, but I would think it important to check it out. My own humble page on this issue can be found here. Then, in turn, I should probably be open to hearing and prayerfully reflection on the stories of some of the more outspoken opponents of the pro-life position. Something like that, maybe.
And the equity thing is interesting, too. You're right, of course, that we are in no sense equal in any meaningful sense, even if we're identical twins. Perhaps it does follow from this that equality as a political banner or slogan just makes no sense. It's a relatively new idea, of course. Medieval peasants didn't think they were "equal," I bet--nor did their owners. But two questions: isn't it the case that we simply cannot say this on today's cultural scene? You can be against abortion, but you cannot be against equity and equality: whatever your opinion on whatever you're opinion is on, the need for equity must warrant it. So you say, if there's such a thing as equity, then the fetus must have its share, etc. But you cannot say, men and women simply are different, and they have different gifts and different consequences, and must therefore orient themselves differently vis-à-vis (let us say) sexuality--even though all this us quite obviously true. I mean, we can say it, but Bush can't--no elected official can, and it seems to me the whole debate is conditioned by that universal need to self-censor.
You have never uttered a truer word. This self-censorship thing is simply amazing to me. I have caught the most unlikely people engaging in the most amazing acts of self-sensorthip in this way. The ungrammatical singular "they" is the most notorious linguistic example. Even Catholics tip-toe around the wording of Ephesians 5 by talking about "mutual submission" of husbands and wives to one another, though of course the text says no such thing.

Having said that, I think we would both acknowledge that there's a distinction to be made between the moral and the legal and the politically possible, and that the difficulty of supporting a position politically is insufficient excuse for supporting it morally, if it calls for support. It would have been so easy for the then Sir Thomas More just to sign the Act of Supremacy-- so easy ... but for that little thing called conscience.