By Steven Yates
July 2, 2022
Friday, June 24, 2022 will go down in history as the day one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history was finally reversed: Roe v Wade (also Casey v Planned Parenthood).
The claim that “abortion rights” are “found” in a Constitutional “penumbra” is dead in the water.
The death culture (one might call it) — a culture in which women and more than a few men will take to the streets protesting eliminating a “right” to kill unborn babies — is still very much around, though, and clearly isn’t going anywhere.
In anticipation of last Friday’s decision, police in riot gear were seen on their way to the SCOTUS building. Can you imagine this happening in years past when SCOTUS decisions favored the cultural left (as in, e.g., Obergefell v Hodges)?
Police remained busy as protests erupted in leftie-controlled big cities. Calls to “burn down” the SCOTUS building were heard; highways were blocked; prolife women were assaulted by more of those “mostly peaceful protesters.” Antifa was on the move. Some trying to film had phones knocked from their hands and were forced to flee. Evidence continues to amass that most politically-motivated violence in America comes from lefties, despite “expert” pronouncements reciting official narratives about “right-wing extremists” and “white supremacists.”
I had little interest in the abortion issue until the day I was “asked” to teach a contemporary moral issues class and handed the textbook. There it was, the lead unit.
I dove in with few preconceptions of what to expect. The selection of readings seemed fair, in the sense that both sides were represented. Articles by “pro-choice” women professors were balanced by tracts such as an excerpt from a Pope John Paul II encyclicalre titled “The Unspeakable Crime of Abortion.” Other authors argued that abortion was either never acceptable, or was acceptable only in those rare cases when the mother’s life was threatened if the pregnancy was carried to term, or in cases of rape or incest. There were seven or eight essays in all, with questions for reflection at the end. The textbook didn’t try to resolve the issue. Current ethics textbooks never do.
What impressed me was the concern for fundamentals on one side — fundamentals here meaning: concern for what a human person is, and what ultimately grounds our saying human beings have rights — any rights? Versus those assuming a standpoint in which such issues are fully decided by legal rulings or cultural consensus, and we’re just working out the consequences.
I was unprepared for how intellectually weak and sloppy “pro-choice” reasoning (dating mostly from the 1970s) really was. Some students weren’t having it. When I posed a rhetorical question drawn from the introductory reading at the start of the discussion: “Is a fetus human?” one girl retorted, “Well, it isn’t a fish.” Of course, the debate as framed in textbooks isn’t over whether the unborn are genetically human but whether they are persons, members of the moral community. A dichotomy is simply presumed.
One author demonstrated clearly, however unintentionally, the logical minefield we enter when essential criteria for personhood cease to be complete human DNA, and when rights cease to be God-given and become legal pronouncements (or “social constructions”).
Her name was Mary Anne Warren, and she presented five “criteria for personhood” which relied on a science fiction thought experiment. She asked for the circumstances in which travelers to another planet would recognize members of a presumably very different alien species as persons like us with rights.
As I sometimes say, you can’t make this stuff up. This was to be her test for whether the unborn — who are unlike adults! — are persons.
Some of her criteria — seeing in them evidence of complex cognitive ability — ruled out not just newborns but small children, people in comas, and many Alzheimer’s sufferers. Other criteria — an ability to feel and respond to pain—utterly failed to rule out unborn babies.
A different article tried to draw an analogy between the unborn baby and a famous but unconscious violinist, to whom a woman who had been kidnapped was hooked up so that their blood-streams were shared. She was to be forced to continue sharing her blood to keep the unconscious violinist alive for nine months.
It is hard to count the number of disanalogies in this ridiculous argument.
At first I wondered how this kind of stuff ever got published in refereed academic journals, much less anthologized in a textbook students were expected to read and take seriously. I soon came to realize that by the time of the course I was teaching, left-liberals were established gatekeepers of philosophy publishing on most social-philosophy and moral-philosophy issues.
Bingo. Because sloppy thinking isn’t the exception for academic-cultural lefties. It’s the norm. It is easy to be distracted by it, and not to see where the real fault line is. Much academic discussion is put together in such a way as to avoid the “big questions.” What I am referring to will be familiar to long time readers. The distinction is between those who believe that all valuation, especially moral valuation and therefore rights ascriptions, are grounded in a transcendent reality and that reality’s God, versus those who would find them exclusively in this world, which means: in legal maneuverings and cultural consensus. Which the latter really means in turn: in the choices of those with the money and power to enforce their collective will on everyone else.
Back in the 1830s sociology-founder Auguste Comte penned his “Positive Polity” essay which founded the philosophical ideology known as positivism. This became, I am convinced, one of the most important documents helping understand how we’ve ended up where we are.
Comte formulated his “Law” of Three Stages a rising civilization passes through.The first stage is the stage of pure faith: the “religious or fictitious,” as he put it. The second stage is the stage of pure reason: the “metaphysical and abstract” which he did not think was much better. The third stage is the stage of empirical science: the “scientific and positive.” With additions by scholars to come (Great Britain’s John Stuart Mill who oversaw the translation of Comte’s writings into English, and Bertrand Russell who wrote at length of “scientific philosophy,” among others), the third stage became the stage of science, technology, commerce, utility, and the firm belief that the human race could take its progress into its own hands. This included moral progress — without gods or other transcendent abstractions from the past. There was just this world, its workings disclosed by science and in which we big-brained primates act as economic agents.
Materialism was the logical result of third stage thinking (I have written about this here, here, here, and here, with a reply to a critic here; the entire package is upgraded here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Upshot: materialism(sometimes called materialist naturalism, or just naturalism) is a theory of reality, or a metaphysics. It is not the conclusion of any specific empirical results or scientific findings. Rather, it came to function as a first premise, or starting point. Empowered by the writings of Darwin, Freud, and others, materialism as a worldview had taken over major universities by around 1900. Given the prestige of those “experts,” it spread outwards across education generally, culture, and especially government and law. A doctrine known as legal positivism had appeared and grown dominant. Legal positivism asserts essentially that rights, justice, etc., are what the legal system (i.e., its dominant voices) says they are — no more, no less.
Materialism denies the existence of any fundamental moral distinction between human persons and the rest of physical reality. The human race as a whole has no transcendent moral significance or higher purpose. It is in this physical/material world, the world disclosed by science, that “our highest ideals must find a home” as philosopher Bertrand Russell would write in his also-pivotal “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903). By “highest ideals” he meant social justice and freedom from war.
Can we begin to see how a philosophical ideology has cheapened human life?
We — as tribal beings in many respects — had been struggling to overcome our tribalist past. What was healthiest in Enlightenment thinking was its declaration that rights were universal, not mere possessions of this or that tribe. Enlightenment philosophers did not invent this idea out of whole cloth. They got it from Christianity, and the Christian idea that man (meaning all persons) was created in God’s image.
Combine Enlightenment universalism with the notion that we can start with ourselves and invent from scratch a moral code that defines rights, and you have something that is proving to be our undoing.
The trajectory the twentieth century followed should have indicated that there was something wrong with the idea that materialist secularism could ever be the basis for a workable ethics. The Great War, as it was then called, began in 1914, shattered Europe, and because of improved communications, had ripple effects on our side of the Atlantic. The war exemplified the level of destruction human beings had become capable of, which would only worsen with time.
What is sometimes called the Jazz Age ensued starting around 1919-20; this was also an era of nihilist art movements such as Dadaism, although the overall mood of the country was giddy and upbeat.
Further shaking the optimism of earlier eras were the Great Depression, the Second World War, the rising evidence of genocides which were hardly limited to the Nazis, the coming of nuclear weapons, the rise of the Soviet Union as a world power, and the onset of the Cold War (and doctrines such as “Mutually Assured Destruction”) which lasted until 1989-91. When the Soviet Union fell, we saw not freedom but consolidations of wealth and power, irresponsible financial machinations, the unrest all this has given rise to, and the divisions we now see.
Where does abortion fit in here? This is an easy question.
Tribalism had always cheapened the life of “the other,” those outside one’s own tribe, or just those deemed inconvenient. Through hard, patient work, some of it intellectual and some of it political, the Western world started to overcome tribalism. Getting rid of chattel slavery was a major step forward.
But beginning in the 1970s, tribalism started returning in various forms. Today we have identity politics: academic tribalism. But identity politics is hardly the only form tribalism can take. Our latter-day neo tribalism has been fueled by the general idea that what it means to be human can be redefined through political or legal will, and that inconvenient humans can be written out of the moral community (what the Nazis did to the Jews, and what Stalinists did to Ukrainians who resisted collective farming).
Add to this, finally, globalists and technocrats who believe themselves capable of designing their “new world order” (or “great reset”) based on nudges, surveillance and controls, all through social engineering. This is bound to involve eliminating “useless eaters” and the systematic impoverishing of those who refuse to get with the program. Aborting unwanted unborn children will be part of this and actually encouraged if the mother can’t afford a child, or another child.
Our tribalist instincts plus materialism yield the modern death culture.
Abortion-on-demand works by writing the unborn out of the moral community. They are genetically human nonpersons, as were Jews to the Nazis and resisters to collective agriculture were to Stalin and his minions. The idea that the unborn are nonpersons is the reason “liberated” women can shout, “My body, my life, my choice!” “Women’s reproductive rights!” etc., etc.
They literally do not see another moral agent involved.
“Pro-lifers” still have their work cut out for them, therefore. This is because the end of Roe obviously does not mean the end of the death culture. As some have put it, a single federal problem has just become 50 state-level problems. Some states will ban abortion altogether (some already have, others are moving to do so). Others will become havens where the practice will continue unabated.
The problem is materialism,hovering over the death culture like a shadow so pervasive no one sees it. Corporate culture is materialist through-and-through. Decision-makers within corporate culture are not well enough educated to recognize this, but they act on it. This is why Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Facebook, Disney, Amazon, both Uber and Lyft, and many others, are ready to pay travel expenses for employees seeking abortions in states where abortion is likely to remain legal.
This will continue unless the dominant worldview of the West is changed. I vote for changing it back to Christianity, and encouraging the sort of Christian culture in which all human beings are seen as having intrinsic value and therefore as important: as “mattering” if you will.This change cannot focus on a single issue, such as abortion. It must be holistic, and address a mindset. It will cut across a swath of other issues, including sexuality, child-rearing and education, the family unit, and how businesses should operate.
What I am talking about will be extremely difficult. We are already demonized as theocrats. We will have to police themselves, so we do not become theocrats. We face a definite uphill struggle against hostile powers behind the death culture who have vastly superior resources and control of all dominant media. But ending the dominance of the death culture is the only chance Western civilization has, and time is running out.
Steven Yates blogs at Lost Generation Philosopher, and has begun writing a philosophy course centered on freedom, its preconditions, and the choices a person must make in order to have it.
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