Thursday, April 21, 2005

Relativism, Rights, and Roe - Oh, My!

One of the fortunate outcomes of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as Pope is the airtime that the subject of moral relativism is receiving. His comments about our moving toward "a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires" set off a firestorm of media conversation about, of all things, philosophy. Shortly after the announcement that Cardinal Ratzinger had been selected as John Paul II's successor, Chris Wallace of Fox News, referring to the cardinal's pre-conclave homily noted that relativism isn't a topic that's discussed much in the news and then asked one of his guests, a Roman Catholic priest, what relativism is.

As expected, a lot of the talk about the new Pope's deep convictions about the reality of objective moral truths has to do with the impact this is likely to have on American politics, especially the debates over life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research.

Adherents to moral relativism like to present themselves as objective and neutral, free from the rigidity that afflicts absolutists. However, relativists are in actuality ardent absolutists who at some point inevitably undermine their profession that all beliefs about what is right and wrong are either personally or socially constructed. This is inconsistent, however, with the belief that individuals have rights that should not be infringed upon by others. To get around this difficulty, many pro-choicers will try to ground a woman's "right" to abort in the fact that it is legal. But press harder and you'll find that they don't really believe that this alleged right is conferred by the state. Ask if Roe v. Wade were overturned whether they would consider that a violation of a woman's rights and honest proponents will answer affirmatively. The problem for them is that such a response reveals that they believe in some objective standard that transcends the law of the land, a belief completely incompatible with a relativistic worldview. William Watkins makes this point in his book The New Absolutes:

Human rights belong to the world of absolutists, not relativists (although absolutists would readily grant that even relativists have human rights whether they believed in them or not). True relativists cannot appeal to human rights. At best, they must try to ground their rights beliefs in culture or the individual, but even then the best they can do is say rights are conventional - we simply decide what we will consider a right, then agree to act accordingly. If we change our mind about that right being a right, then it will not be a right any longer. (p. 41)
What follows is an online dialogue with an abortion rights activist whom I've chosen to call PC (for either Pro-Choice or Politically Correct) that illustrates some of the problems mentioned above. My initial question was in response to the frequently heard claim that abortions are justified in order to prevent unwanted children.

KP: Do you think we should exterminate other unwanted human life as well?

PC: First, abortion, according to the law of the land, is not murder.

KP: You didn't really answer my question. If someone's being unwanted is justification for ending his life, then why should this just be the case with preborn human life?

PC: Because after they are born it's murder. And need I remind you that most people in prison, and ALL the mass murderers were unwanted and/or unloved children?

KP: You seem to be assuming that whatever is legislated is morally right. Am I correct?

PC: Not always. But to approach this from a different angle...are you saying that women are not smart enough to make the right decision on this topic?

KP: I'm saying nothing of the sort. I'm saying that the taking of innocent human life is wrong and should not be allowed in the name of allowing an individual to exercise choice.

PC: That is your opinion and your perception. That is fine. I honor that. Why can't you honor a difference of opinion? Outlawing this would be invoking your opinion on millions of women.

KP: And legalizing it is invoking death on millions of human lives. And let's be honest. You don't really "honor" my opinion. You think it's wrong just as I think yours is. Do you think that we should make taking all life legal and justify it by saying "Well, people are smart enough to make their own decision about these things?"

PC: No, you are wrong. I believe that you do have the right to your opinion. Personally, I disagree, but, I don't think it is wrong. By having a choice though, you can exercise your rights. If your choice becomes the law of the land, though, people lose those choices

KP: Do we have the right to choose to do whatever we want regardless of its impact on others? (And how, exactly, does one disagree with a position and not think it's wrong?)

PC: No..absolutely not

KP: So the right to choose should only be protected in cases where choice does not infringe on the life and welfare of others?

PC: Infringing on whom? Are you gonna take all those kids? Probably not. But you, as a taxpaying member of society, will pay for the results.

KP: You didn't answer my previous question. How would you feel about our making the taking of all life legal on the grounds that we believe that people are smart enough to make the right decisions concerning which lives to take? And are you suggesting that anyone that I'm not willing to care for can be killed?

PC: I believe I did answer it. And don't we already do that with the death penalty?

KP: You see, whether or not I'm willing to take all the kids is really immaterial to the issue of whether killing them is morally justified. How would you feel about our making the taking of all life legal on the grounds that we believe that people are smart enough to make the right decisions concerning which lives to take?

PC: No, it isn't immaterial. You outlaw abortions, you have to find something to do with those children unwanted by the birth mother. And adoption is not an option in many cases...especially non-whites

KP: So again we're back to saying that what determines whether a life should be protected is whether or not it's wanted by someone else? What if I should cease wanting my own born children? Can I kill them?

PC: I would not be in favor of it. That would be murder. But, once again, it has been determined that the aborted fetus is not a life.

KP: What's the difference between a preborn and a born human life? Are you denying that the fetus has a distinct genetic identity and is alive?

PC: I am neither a Supreme Court judge nor an attorney in the Roe v. Wade decision.

KP: So you don't know whether the fetus has a unique genetic code, distinct from that of its mother and whether it is alive? If it is not a human being, what kind of being do you say it is?

PC: have your right to do what you can within the law to change the law. I have to right to oppose you. But you don't see any pro choice people bombing Right to Life rallies, do you?

KP: I don't advocate such violence. Immaterial to the topic at hand. Now, if the fetus is not a human being, what kind of being is it? And no, you haven't advocated violence. It's just a shame so many in your cause have.

PC: No, it is material. What we are talking about here is rescinding someone's right to make a decision concerning their body.

KP: Oh, but they're not just making a decision about their body. They're making a decision to terminate the life of a body not their own. So, if the fetus is not a human being, what kind of being do you suggest it is?

PC: If it cannot survive independent of that body, than it IS their body. I don't make that leap.

KP: You're wrong. The fetus does not have the same genetic constitution as the mother. He or she has a unique genetic identity.

PC: Being an arts and humanities graduate, I avoid the science aspect of it. Ok, so does a cancer, cyst and mole.

KP: You avoid the science aspect of it? How can you say that it is permissible to kill something without dealing with what it is? And, BTW, a mole does not have a distinct genetic identity from the rest of one's bodily cells.

PC: Do you really think you will make a convert of me?

KP: No. It's obvious that you don't really care about the facts. I was just hoping that you'd be honest with the weakness of your position.

PC: Try on this fact: it is currently legal. Try this one: the majority of Americans want the right to choose. Another fact: it is within your rights to try to change it. And it is within my rights to try to stop you.

KP: Are you saying that whatever is legal OUGHT to be?

PC: You discount any contrary opinion as "not being honest"

KP: No, I don't. I find it odd that one would admit that he doesn't involve himself in the scientific question of what the fetus is before condoning its killing.

PC: There are laws I disagree with. I have the right to try to change them. This is not one of them

KP: But does the fact that something is legal mean that it is necessarily right?

PC: At that point, it becomes an issue of personal opinion..i.e. prohibition

KP: So the fact that abortion is legal doesn't necessarily mean that it is morally justified, does it?

PC: By it being a legal option it becomes a personal decision. It is an individual moral choice.

KP: So, when slavery was legal, for example, it was simply a matter of personal choice?

PC: Outlawing it would impose one groups definition of "moral choice" on the entire nation.

KP: And legalizing it is also to impose someone's morality on an entire nation by saying that it is justified to take innocent human life. All legislation imposes someone's moral views.

PC: As a matter of fact, it was a matter of personal choice for those that could own slaves...just like it is for those that are pregnant.

KP: But was it wrong?

PC: You just don't get it. IT IS NOT CONSIDERED A HUMAN LIFE!!!!

KP: What is it?

PC: It is considered a fetus.

KP: To say that it is a fetus is just to speak of one stage in human development. That doesn't mean that it is not a human life. Is the fetus a member of the human species, having the genetic composition essential to humanness?

PC: Can it live independent of the mother?

KP: Answer my question first and I'll answer yours. Is the fetus a member of the human species, having the genetic composition essential to humanness?

PC: Not according to law.

KP: LOL...the law denies that the fetus has human DNA. Please refer me to the books for that one. If it doesn't have the DNA of a human, what species DOES it belong to?

PC:'s one for you...why does it matter? I assume you make your opinion made known at the ballot box. So do I.

KP: It matters because if it IS a member of the human species and it IS alive (as opposed to dead) then you are defending the right to take its life in the name of choice. Why can't you just answer the question? Do members of the human species procreate and conceive other members of the human species?

PC: I have answered your have the courts. That is why abortions are not allowed after a certain time frame. See you in the ballot box.

KP: No, you haven't answered the question. If you are saying that the fetus is not a HUMAN life, what kind of life is it? Gorilla? Starfish? Border Collie?

PC: Thank you. You have expressed your opinion. That's fine. I have expressed mine. I respect your right to yours, unfortunately, it doesn't appear that you are willing to show any for the other opinion. I suggest you do what you feel you need to do to change the law. I will legally resist you and your closed-minded cohorts. Good night.


Mike - said...

Boy, if that doesn't show that liberalism is a mental disorder, I don't know what does!

Sophia of Canada said...

My very thoughtful nephew has described the "abortion debate" shift as follows

When Roe was decided the PC line was--it's not a baby, just a (pick one--blob of tissue, product of conception etc.,).

Now, it's a baby (called a fetus to make killing easier), but it doesn't matter.

How sad

Sophia of Canada said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ephphatha said...

After all that, he calls you closed-minded. That's ironic.

Mike - said...

Sophia of Canada is dead right.

You know, that guy repeatedly said, You can vote to try and get your way on abortion. Actually, I wish that were the case.

Thanks to activist judges, who confuse their job with that of a legislature, we actually can't enact our will via the political process. Don't fool yourself into thinking the nation enacted laws to make abortion intrinsically legal. In 1973, we had many laws prohibiting abortion, but a few judges decided to effectively veto them all. It was a huge power grab which basically took away our right -- the right of "the people" -- to decide. The dictators in robes now tell us how it will be on abortion, and we no power to change it. This government was never intended to be this way.

That's why this current struggle over judicial confirmations is critically important.