Monday, September 18, 2006

Shaping Abortion in America

Moral Shape, Rights and Abortion: There is No Universal Moral Code

Is the morality of abortion based on a universal moral code? Could any question be more cliché than that? With forests already reduced to paper, and gigawatts of power already spent driving computer screens on this question, it seems little new can possibly be said. Nevertheless, during a recent conversation with Phil Jackson we decided to approach this question from two very separate perspectives with the hope of saying something interesting, if not discovering something new about the nature of morality itself. I will argue the moral significance of any killing be it the killing of a helpless fetus or the killing of an armed terrorist depends upon a moral decision made within the context of a coherent moral system that can only occur within language. These linguistic moral systems are “semiotic moral gestalts.” They are constructions of language that people use to make their decisions about what is right and what is wrong behavior. I use the word “gestalt” because these language systems give shape to our moral reasoning, and they are dynamic structures: they can change into new shapes for moral decision making.

Morality from this perspective, therefore, is dependent not on any material action itself but rather on the meaning of that material action within the context of a coherent moral language. There is no absolute moral code other than the fact that people always depend on moral codes to make their moral decision. In a word, whether or not killing a fetus is morally justified is dependent on language first and action next. Moral culpability is dependent on reasoning and reasoning is dependent on words, as is clear even in the Biblical passage “In the beginning was the Word [Logos] and the Word [Logos] was with God and the Word [Logos] was God.” (John 1:1) As God here speaks the very universe into metaphysical existence, we alone speak human morality into human existence. Mortal humans must write the moral codes. Mortal humans must determine the shape of their moral gestalts using words alone. We may, and many certainly do, look to holy books like the Bible or the Koran to guide us, but in the end we must choose to embrace our moral gestalt so constructed. Even the fundamentalist must choose to structure his moral world by using various biblical passages and ignoring others if he hopes to have a fully coherent moral order. So, those of us who look to God to do the unavoidable human chore of creating moral gestalts betray both God and man.

Killing is death. That is a metaphysical fact. Determining whether or when that killing is immoral or morally justifiable is a dizzying, inescapable and wholly human duty. God does not lay morality at our feet, we must create it. Morality is not a discovery; it is simply one more trembling invention of imperfect humans. Determining good and bad behavior requires us to use words and logic – Logos -- to create moral reasoning systems the best we can. So, no; there is not a universal moral code. There is not any quadratic moral equation from which to derive good behavior with algebraic certainty. There is no mathematical moral certainty. There are only strong moral codes that withstand the pressures we place upon them, and dangerously weak moral codes that crumble beneath those who depend on them for guidance, law and life itself. Human survival depends on moral codes as surely as we need food and shelter. The moral codes of a people allow those people to function as a unified yet dynamic human community. No moral code, no community. No community, no life. Most troubling for us however, is that no moral code is so sturdy that it does not require vigilance to keep it in place. There is no moral code entirely impervious to sedition, subversion, infection and terror. There is no moral code that cannot be undermined by moral invasion or antagonistic moral jihad. As buildings crumble, so too do semiotic moral gestalts. Wars waged against people’s moral codes are no less destructive to those people than wars of bullets, bombs and beheadings. In fact, at present I worry more about the moral terrorism waged against us by radical Islam than about the death of my self or my countrymen. The death of a man does not destroy a nation, but the destruction of a nation’s moral order, even without the death of a single soul, may easily annihilate a nation, regardless of how mighty.

This is the crux of my argument: We are responsible for creating our moralities, and we too are responsible for protecting them. There is no divinely ordained universal moral order, no God’s code of right and wrong. And that is why when our nation was being built, so too was our national moral order being designed. The shape of American morality, our rights-based semiotic moral gestalt, was born alongside our nation itself. Both are mortal, both are vulnerable.

The immorality of abortion then is not divinely ordained, nor is it a universal moral fact. All morality is dependent on many individual wills choosing similarly, or in harmony, in the face of uncertainty and confusion. So, although killing a fetus is not an absolute evil in the way that it is an absolute truth that all triangles have three sides; the extraordinary liberality of abortion in America is certainly subversive to our cultural morality. Yes, when our culture embraces death with such ease this is evidence that our moral foundation is being undermined. It illustrates our perverse growing national tendency to trump life with pleasure. It points to our growing disdain for family in favor of communalism, perhaps even communism. These are dangers that surely ought to be resisted. But to outlaw abortion, I’m afraid, would be similarly subversive.

To make abortion universally illegal would run afoul of the same moral principles that would make a state mandated religion subversive, or the outlawing of guns subversive. The very natural rights developed to give us maximum individual liberty are the natural rights that led inexorably to legalized abortion. So, legalized abortion is entirely consistent with our moral gestalt. What is subversive, as we will see, is the notion that killing a fetus is an entitlement for those who desire it. Abortion is not, nor could it be, an entitlement within the American moral gestalt that also allows legalized abortion.

Natural rights morality is the supreme example of a human-made moral gestalt. It arose for the first time during the Enlightenment. However, simply because the Enlightenment philosophers and the framers of the United States Constitution used the language of God, does not demonstrate that these much-cherished, foundational, inalienable, human rights, really are God-given natural rights! Natural rights are the invention of people and perhaps the most beautiful intellectual edifice ever devised by man, but they are certainly not the Tablets of Moses. Man gives man the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty and Estates.

So let’s now look at how abortion fits in our natural rights moral gestalt. If we accept the notion of inalienable natural rights then we must simultaneously recognize that these rights are not entitlements. After all my right to Life, Liberty and Estates means I get to keep them, and I do not have to give them to others, who through misfortune or mere sloth need some of my life, liberty or estates. My life is mine, and the liberty that my life provides me allows me to accumulate private property. All that I have issues from my personal industry. You may be starving or dying, but that does not allow you to make a claim against my rights any more than I could make a claim against your rights. This is not to suggest we ought not to care for the less fortunate, but we ought to do so either from a generous heart, or enlightened self-interest, but certainly not because of mere government coercion.

The job of government, within this moral gestalt, is to protect our individual rights from intruders and thieves both outside and inside our borders. The role of government is to maximize our individual liberty, not the redistribution of anyone’s liberty or life or property. Such coerced charity by the government is tantamount to theft. Now that does not mean coerced giving to the needy is never justified, but that justification depends upon whether or not those coerced into giving are themselves helped by their giving. The coerced feeding of the poor, educating of the ignorant, caring for the indigent can only be justified when it is done to protect those whose liberty and industry was transformed into that property taxed. My taxes paid must help me; my taxes paid are paid indirectly to myself, for they are paid to protect my liberty. Yes, my taxes mean I work at least one full day a week for others, but if by so doing my taxes protect my own liberty, my government may reasonably force me to pay taxes for the support of others. Well fed, well educated and healthy people are less likely to harm myself and my family. From this perspective, the notion of an entitlement is a misnomer. Others are not entitled to take my rights from me through mandatory taxation; rather I am required to maximize my liberty by helping those who would otherwise harm me and educate those who would otherwise give little to the advancement of my goals as a member of my moral community. To be forced to subsidize the public education of another’s child is arguably a direct benefit to me. This point is crucial to Locke’s Second Treatise.

Granted I have left out many aspects of our rights based liberal democratic morality, from military requirements to enforcement of contracts to protection from economic exploitation and so forth, but essential to a rights based democratic moral gestalt is that the primary duty of the government is to protect the individual liberty that issues from individual life. The government protects our right to pursue happiness as we please so long as our pursuit does not infringe on the liberty or life of another. However, our government is under no duty to protect us from the unfairness of nature, unless that protection is a protection for all. If I am walking down the street and unexpectedly it begins to pour, the government is not obligated to provide me with an umbrella. I can of course be taxed to support a nationalized insurance program if I vote for it. Insurance is an odd case where one freely pays in with the clear wish that he may lose all he puts in. For by losing one wins, and by winning one must lose when it comes to purchasing insurance. Although I hope never to collect on my health, home or auto insurance, I freely buy these hoping that at worse I will only subsidize someone else’s misfortune and not my own. A nationalized health insurance program or other social service programs would be justifiable only if those forced to pay into these programs do so in order to help themselves, even if they never received a dime back. Those forced to pay, must also have agreed upon that enforcement through the democratic process. Within the semiotic moral gestalt of a rights-based democracy, we choose the laws that bind us.

Legal abortions, as well as armed madmen, are both, perhaps the unintended, but entirely consistent consequences of our rights-based democratic moral gestalt. Let me use a variation of an analogy used by Judith Jarvis Thompson to make the point. If it is a hot day and I leave the front door of my house open to cool it off, and I then go upstairs to take a nap, if an intruder has moved in during my nap I have the right to evict him even though I was a fool for leaving open my door. After all it is my house and no one has the right to move into my house without my explicit permission to serve as a contract. In other words, if I have not entered into some variety of a contract with this interloper he has no claim against my right to my property and my liberty. Out he goes. And, if he will not leave of his own volition, I can call the police to evict him. And even if he dies during that eviction his unfortunate death is not my moral responsibility.

Now, imagine again, I leave my door open and this time someone moves in during my nap, and he has attached himself to my piano with an odd variety of explosive collar that cannot be removed for nine month. If I, or anyone else, remove the collar prior to nine months in order to evict him the collar will explode, blow his head off, and make a terrible mess of my living room in the process. So, do I have the right to evict him? To do so will certainly mean he will be killed, and my home will be damaged, even if only slightly. This is analogous to an abortion. The fetus must die and the mother may be harmed. If only I had not listened to my natural inclination to be cooled off when I was so hot none of this would have happened. If only I had not been such a fool. But I did, and I was, and now he is attached to my piano. Can I evict him now? Well the answer is certainly yes, based on my natural rights: yes I can evict him even though he will die. Too bad, so sad, oh what a mess. His death and my suffering are both unintended consequence of my enforcement of my inalienable rights to liberty and property. My intent was never to kill him, but merely to have my home back to myself.

Those who would argue my stupidity would in some fashion require I leave him attached to my piano for nine months, would be stuck with the position of saying stupid people lose their rights to liberty and property. Remember, I did not ask him to come in; so I have no contractual obligation to him once he has. But no one, who embraces a rights-based moral gestalt, would accept that. If my car is stolen because I leave it running while I amble into the convenience store that remains grand theft auto despite the fact that I am simultaneously a grand fool.

In conclusion, even horrid or foolish behavior that leads to unwanted pregnancy does not eliminate the rights of the woman who is acting horridly or foolishly. Of course, the argument could be made that sex is in some fashion a tacit contract with the potential fetus, but this would make little sense, since the very essence of a contract is that all contractors have knowingly entered into that contract, and neither a potential fetus nor the guardian of a potential fetus applies here. There is simply no one to contract with prior to conception. Now, we could simply eliminate the rights of reckless women and men and force them to bare all their children so conceived. But now we would be forced out of consistency to eliminate the rights of all foolish door owners in favor of industrious thieves. Appealing door, bad lock; he broke in, his property now. This is precisely the problem we face with abortion. It is not whether or not there is a universal moral code that makes abortion immoral, rather it is a matter of what moral code one is absolutely committed to. What moral semiotic gestalt shapes your moral world? That is the bigger question.

Nevertheless, as a sort of post script, this argument also makes it clear why the bizarre notion that a woman is entitled to an abortion if she wants it is simply inane. No one is entitled to make a claim against anyone if they have not entered into some mutual contractual agreement. Personally, if you get pregnant through legal sexual activity, and you did not want to, I hope you, yourself, have made the appropriate arrangements to take care of this. I certainly do not want my tax money wasted subsidizing debauchery when it could be vastly better spent, vastly more in my interest, creating successful non-union public education. Remember, your pursuit of happiness is never on my dime, nor mine on yours. At least that is what we who hold absolutely to the moral code of natural rights would say.


Post a Comment

<< Home