Monday, July 25, 2016

Washing our hands in the abortion debate

It’s one of those periods when lots of people are talking about abortion in the United States. With one political convention over and the other just beginning, pundits and even some real people are thinking about the positions of the two major parties—one absolutely abolitionist, the other nigh on celebratory—and the four candidates. All of this had me thinking a little bit in the gym about not abortion, but the two main positions: Pro-life/anti-abortion and pro-choice/pro-abortion, to give them both their preferred and disdained names.

I don’t want to argue about the ethics of abortion here. I’ve done that before and probably will do so again. I don't want to argue about whether men should have opinions on abortion. I don’t even want to argue about the politics of abortion or what the law should be. My views on all of those questions would be upsetting to almost anyone.

What I want to point out is something I have noticed about many of the most ardent proponents of both views. Now, of course, this doesn’t apply to you necessarily, so you don’t need to explain to me why I am wrong about some or even most of the people who hold whatever view you have. What I have noticed is that there is often a kind of washing-of-the-hands that goes along with both positions.

There are, of course, many people who are opposed to abortion and who work either to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies or to share and alleviate the burden that comes with bearing and raising those children. Whatever your view on abortion, these people show a commitment to their beliefs. 

There is another—I fear, more common—opponent of abortion. There are many exemplars of this sort in the political class. This opponent is adamantly opposed to abortion, but isn’t invested in changing social structures either to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies or do anything for those women who would have to bear the costs of bearing and raising children. They won’t support the kinds of safety nets, whether governmental or private, that would make having children part of a flourishing life. In a real way, they wash their hands of these women who are not their concern. Their opposition to abortion is easy and morally lazy, because it makes no actual demands on them. For them, the right-to-life is merely a negative right that places no positive moral responsibility on the rest of us. 

I think this moral laziness occurs on the other side, too. Of course, people who are in favor of abortion access tend to vote for progressive policies, so they will at least tend to support a social safety net at the governmental level and such things as wider access to childcare. Many of these people also work to help those women who decide to keep their children to thrive. Whatever your opinion on abortion, you should praise such efforts. 

I say that such people will tend to support such policies, but there are also many libertarians who support access to abortion without supporting any of the policies that make it easier for women to keep and maintain their children. There are also supporters of abortion access who are quite happy to see the social safety net shrink; the age of welfare reform in the nineties was also one of demonization of single mothers by conservatives and liberals. That kind of demonization is related to my point. Support for abortion rights can easily bleed into an attitude, if not a belief, that the woman who chooses to keep a baby—even or especially when that decision will impact her life negatively or she can’t quite afford to raise it as well as she or we would like or that child is going to require extra help—should be fully responsible for the consequences of that decision. After all, if she couldn’t raise the child, she shouldn’t have had it. This is an attitude that also washes its hands of these women and their children. (And, it’s an attitude I’ve heard expressed sneeringly by good liberals.) For those in this camp, the right-to-choose is a fully individual right with material support only for one possible choice. It is in this camp, too, that you find the slightest unease with abortion equated with misogyny.

This tendency to let people fend for themselves may be the true American character of individualism: no one's decisions make any personal demands on us. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Against the revolution

In theory and practice, I believe we should emphasize and privilege the particular over the general, the concrete over the abstract. We must often speak in general or abstract terms, but in doing so we should take our speech to be an approximation or simplification of a much too complex account of all the individuals we are talking about. What I mean is that when we talk about humanity, for instance, we are using a handy way to talk about billions of individuals and not talking about some thing over and above those individuals.Since we can’t make a statement about all the individuals, we abstract away from the particular. In so doing, we lose not only particularity, but a good deal of accuracy. It’s easy to forget this, but it’s important not to lose the individuals for the crowd. (I know that sometimes it is the crowd and its effects on the individuals that matters, too.)

In matters of ethics and politics—for those who wrongly assume that there are two spheres of concern here—an emphasis on the particular means an emphasis on humans. You might think that it’s obvious that humans matter ethically and politically, but many people place their emphasis on humanity. And, “humanity” and “humans” often don't mean the same thing. Consider the way that millions of humans were sacrificed in order to bring about homo sovieticus or his Maoist counterpart or consider the way that fascists are willing to sacrifice millions to bring about their utopia. Yes, the sacrificers here were wrong about what would be good for humanity. Of that there should be no doubt, but they are exemplars of a way of thinking. This way of thinking privileges humanity over humans, and it is a way of thinking that is present in almost all revolutionary thinking.

The revolutionary—here my thought is inspired by Camus in The Rebel—has an idea of an ideal utopian future. This utopia might be a religious paradise, a republic of reason of the sort imagined by the Jacobins, a workers’ paradise, or some other version. The belief is that the utopia is the right, the best, the only correct environment for humanity. Because of the great value of this ideal, sacrifices must be made. I don’t doubt that sometimes lives must be lost in the pursuit of justice, but the brilliance of a utopia means that almost any sacrifice can be justified for this great boon to humanity. In other words, innumerable humans will have to die so that humanity will be better off.The world will burn but how much better things will be after the purifying fire!

The revolutionary is an anti-human humanitarian. If that seems paradoxical, you should think more about it. It is very, very easy to love humanity. The difficult thing is to love one’s neighbors. It’s easy to think that we ought to do something about the suffering of the homeless or the refugee or the victim of racial or sexual or … discrimination or violence; it is hard to treat the homeless woman sleeping in a doorway as deserving of my hospitality, to welcome the refugee into my home, to comfort the victims of discrimination or violence or give up some of my privilege that they may live better.

Talk of revolution is talk of universal morality or a political ideal, whatever the cost. That cost is always borne by real, living, breathing humans. I prefer the humans. That’s why talk of revolution is always terrifying to me; that’s why I think it is always, at best, irresponsible. It’s also why I am a kind of conservative. I believe that human beings are the most valuable—not the only valuable, but the most valuable—beings in my world. Thus, we must do what we can to preserve and conserve them and their lives. That demands justice and it demands change and progress, but not a justice and change and progress that can say, “Let’s tear the world down and start again.”