Abortion Rights and Slavery


ONE OF THE MOST HOTLY CONTESTED
MORAL ISSUES POLITICALLY IN THE UNITED STATES
IN RECENT YEARS HAS BEEN THE QUESTION
WHETHER THERE IS A RIGHT TO AN ABORTION. AND THE SUPREME COURT, IN
A FAMOUS CASE IN THE 1970S ROE V. WADE SAID THAT THERE WAS,
UNDER CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES, A RIGHT TO ABORTION. I AGREE WITH THAT OUTCOME, BUT
I DISAGREE WITH THE REASONS THAT THE COURT ADVANCED. AND THE REASONS
REFLECT VERY POWERFULLY PROCEDURAL LIBERALISM,
THE VERSION OF LIBERALISM THAT SAYS GOVERNMENT
SHOULD BE NEUTRAL AMONG MORAL AND
RELIGIOUS QUESTIONS. WHAT THE COURT SAID
IN THE ABORTION CASE WAS THAT NO STATE CAN AFFIRM
IN LAW SOME PARTICULAR ANSWER TO THE QUESTION WHEN
DOES LIFE BEGIN. THAT’S A CONTROVERSIAL
QUESTION ON WHICH DIFFERENT MORAL AND
RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS HAVE DIFFERENT ANSWERS. SO THE COURTS SAID, WE CAN’T
GET INTO THAT QUESTION. WE HAVE TO BE NEUTRAL. THEREFORE, NO STATE CAN
IMPOSE A PARTICULAR ANSWER TO THE QUESTION WHEN
DOES LIFE BEGIN. AND THEREFORE, WHAT? THEREFORE, THE COURT
SAID, WOMEN SHOULD BE FREE TO DECIDE THAT
QUESTION FOR THEMSELVES. BUT WHAT THE COURT
DID WAS NOT REALLY TO BE NEUTRAL AMONG
THE RELIGIOUS VIEWS AND MORAL VIEWS. IT WAS TO AFFIRM
A PARTICULAR VIEW AND TO REJECT
IMPLICITLY ANOTHER. IF THE CATHOLIC CATHOLIC
MORAL TEACHING ABOUT ABORTION IS TRUE, IF HUMAN LIFE IN
THE RELEVANT MORAL SENSE REALLY DOES BEGIN AT
CONCEPTION, THEN IT’S NOT NEUTRAL TO SAY
EACH WOMAN SHOULD BE FREE TO DECIDE THE
QUESTION FOR HERSELF. BECAUSE IF THAT CATHOLIC
DOCTRINE IS TRUE, WHICH I DON’T BELIEVE IT IS–
I WANT TO EMPHASIZE THAT. I’M NOT AN ADHERENT OF THE
CATHOLIC TEACHING ON ABORTION. I DON’T THINK THAT IT IS
THE CASE THAT THE FETUS IS A PERSON IN THE
RELEVANT MORAL SENSE FROM THE TIME OF CONCEPTION. I DON’T THINK THAT AN EARLY
ABORTION IS MORALLY EQUIVALENT TO INFANTICIDE. BUT IF THE CATHOLIC
DOCTRINE IS TRUE, THEN IT’S NOT SOMETHING ON
WHICH GOVERNMENT CAN BE NEUTRAL, ANYMORE THAN GOVERNMENT COULD
BE NEUTRAL ON THE QUESTION OF INFANTICIDE. BECAUSE IF THAT
DOCTRINE IS TRUE, THEN YOU WOULD HAVE,
REALLY, TO ARGUE A KIND OF JUST WAR THEORY, THAT
1.5 MILLION CIVILIAN DEATHS A YEAR IS JUSTIFIED BY
SOME HIGHER MORAL VALUE. SO, MY VIEW IS THAT
ONE HAS TO ENGAGE THE SUBSTANTIVE MORAL AND EVEN
RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE ITSELF. ENGAGE IT, ARGUE IT OUT. I KNOW PEOPLE WILL SAY,
BUT PEOPLE DISAGREE. YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO
GET AGREEMENT ON THAT. THAT MAY BE TRUE, BUT BETTER
WE SHOULD ENGAGE DIRECTLY THE UNDERLYING MORAL
QUESTION THAN PRETEND THAT THIS QUESTION
CAN BE BRACKETED, THAN PRETEND THAT
WE CAN REALLY BE NEUTRAL ON WHETHER
THE FETUS IS A PERSON IN THE FULL MORAL SENSE. SO, IN THE CASE OF
ABORTION, AT LEAST WHERE A GRAVE MORAL
QUESTION IS CONCERNED, GOVERNMENT CAN’T BE NEUTRAL. LET ME GIVE YOU ANOTHER EXAMPLE
OF THE ATTEMPT TO BE NEUTRAL, A GRAVE MORAL QUESTION. THE DEBATES ABOUT
SLAVERY IN THE 1850S. A FAMOUS DEBATE BETWEEN
ABRAHAM LINCOLN, AND THIS WAS BEFORE HE WAS PRESIDENT,
HE WAS RUNNING FOR THE SENATE, AGAIN AGAINST STEPHEN
DOUGLAS IN ILLINOIS. AND THEY WERE
DEBATING THE QUESTION WHETHER THE FEDERAL
GOVERNMENT SHOULD BAN THE EXTENSION OF SLAVERY
BEYOND THE SOUTHERN STATES WHERE IT ALREADY EXISTED
INTO THE TERRITORIES, THE NEW TERRITORIES. AND STEPHEN DOUGLAS
SAID GOVERNMENT SHOULD BE NEUTRAL
ON THAT QUESTION. DOUGLAS SAID WE SHOULDN’T JUDGE
SLAVERY TO BE RIGHT OR WRONG, AND EMBODY THAT JUDGMENT IN LAW. WHY? BECAUSE PEOPLE DISAGREE,
AS THEY CERTAINLY DID. AND TO INSIST ON GOVERNMENT
AFFIRMING A SINGLE ANSWER WILL LEAD TO CIVIL WAR. AND HE WAS RIGHT ABOUT THAT. LINCOLN SAID, NO. GOVERNMENT SHOULD AFFIRM CERTAIN
SUBSTANTIVE MORAL JUDGMENTS, IN THIS CASE ABOUT SLAVERY. GOVERNMENT SHOULD TREAT SLAVERY
AS THE MORAL WRONG IT IS. AND LINCOLN SAID, IF SLAVERY
REALLY IS A GREAT MORAL WRONG, THEN YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON THE
QUESTION, AS DOUGLAS PROPOSED. YOU CAN’T LEAVE IT
UP TO EACH TERRITORY TO DECIDE FOR ITSELF,
AS DOUGLAS PROPOSED. BECAUSE YOU CAN ONLY LEAVE
IT UP TO EACH TERRITORY IF YOU DON’T REALLY THINK
IT IS A GREAT MORAL EVIL. NOW, LIBERALS WOULD
WANT TO SAY, WE’RE NOT NEUTRAL ON THE
QUESTION OF SLAVERY. SLAVERY IS A VIOLATION OF HUMAN
RIGHTS, OF INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS, SO IT’S PERFECTLY POSSIBLE
WITHIN THE LIBERAL FRAMEWORK TO AFFIRM LINCOLN’S
POSITION, AND TO REJECT THE POSITION OF STEPHEN DOUGLAS. AND THAT’S CERTAINLY
TRUE FROM THE STANDPOINT OF KANTIAN LIBERALISM,
WHICH EMPHASIZES RESPECT FOR PERSONS AS PERSONS, AND
COMMANDS RESPECT FOR HUMANITY AS SUCH. SO IT’S PERFECTLY POSSIBLE
FOR A KANTIAN LIBERAL TO CONDEMN SLAVERY. BUT IS IT POSSIBLE
FOR THOSE VERSIONS OF PROCEDURAL
LIBERALISM THAT DON’T AFFIRM THE KANTIAN MORAL PICTURE
TO SAY WHY STEPHEN DOUGLAS WAS WRONG IN WANTING TO BE NEUTRAL? I’M NOT SO SURE. AND I THINK THIS IS ANALOGOUS
TO THE ABORTION QUESTION. WHERE GRAVE MORAL
QUESTIONS ARE CONCERNED, IT MAY NOT BE POSSIBLE FOR
GOVERNMENT TO BE NEUTRAL. OR WHEN GOVERNMENT CLAIMS
IT’S BEING NEUTRAL, ISN’T IT IMPLICITLY
TAKING A STAND ON THE MORAL AND
RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSIES IT CLAIMS TO BRACKET,
IT CLAIMS TO SET ASIDE? I THINK SO.

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