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Partial-birth abortion and the danger of emotivism

Notre Dame philosophy prof John O'Callaghan responds to my post on today's partial-birth abortion ruling by the Supreme Court.  It is long, but well worth reading in its entirety:

It is at least a bit of good news against a background of tragic events this Easter season.  I haven’t read the decision, but I am intrigued by the language of “human life” in the passage that you cite.  It would suggest that the court recognizes that the unborn child is, as a matter of fact, human, perhaps even a human life, and even perhaps a human being (gasp).  (Those who believe in what I like to call a “This Magic Moment” Metaphysics of Personalization might, no doubt, still argue that it ain’t a person, but we’ll leave that aside.)

But then it would seem that in the language of “values,” “value,” and “interests,” that the Supreme Court chooses to express its opinions in, your perhaps rhetorical question at the end of your entry has a trivial answer, but a trivial answer that goes well beyond the rhetorical question.  If it is a question of weighing values depending upon the varying interests of the parties involved, then any decision to kill a human life that is not rash or on the spot, but a result of reasoned deliberation and choice about those interests and values, would seem to be ipso facto a “devaluing” of the human life that is killed at any stage.  Socially we are just asking, “what price are we willing to pay for that particular devaluation.”  The question of the particular procedure employed to kill the human life at some stage would seem to be immaterial to the case.  In the language of “values” and “interests” doesn’t exercise of the death penalty by lethal injection ipso facto devalue the life of the executed, regardless of the sanitized procedure that makes it look like the executed is simply going to sleep, precisely because we are weighing “values” against one another, affirming some and “devaluing” others?  And might that move towards the sanitary be itself a social anesthetic we apply to ourselves to deaden the moral pain of killing that human life?  It seems to me that a social move toward more “humane” procedures may have very little to do with lessening the suffering of the one to whom they are applied, and much more to do with anesthetizing our moral and social feelings of pain in carrying out our decisions.

No doubt we can all cheer the result today; but the reasoning of many against PBA, focusing upon the gruesome nature of the procedure, might be part of the broad social problem we face.  Any invasive medical procedure will typically appear gruesome to most people.  Think of open heart surgery, or colectomy.  But we don’t, and we shouldn’t take our sense of disgust at the gruesomeness of the procedures to be constitutive of their moral or legal status.  If we did, our moral and legal reasoning would express the kind of emotivism that Alasdair MacIntryre diagnosed in After Virtue as the dominant paradigm of moral and social reasoning characteristic of advanced capitalist society, where values and interests replace goods.  The great medieval historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson, echoing Nietzsche, wrote somewhere that “values are what goods become in a world in which God is dead.”  And insofar as we adopt the language of “values” and emotivist type reasoning, even if only provisionally, in order to win a tactical victory, we run the risk of contributing to the larger loss.

We need to keep our eyes on the prize.  The gruesomeness of the particular procedure, insofar as it bears the moral characteristics of being bad or evil, does so because it participates in the evil of deliberately destroying the good and innocent human life involved.  If the medical procedure were carried out on an already deceased unborn child, as no doubt it may be if the child has tragically but naturally died in utero at that stage of development, presumably we would all recognize the appropriateness of the procedure.  We think the procedure is morally abhorrent because it destroys a good, a human life.  Does the Court’s decision today allow the doctor to “humanely” give the unborn child a lethal injection of some pain killer, and then, upon the judgment that it is now deceased, allow for the very same procedure to be performed upon the now dead child?  Sadly, if it does, we have not advanced very far today.  Presumably a less invasive and medically gruesome procedure shares just as much in the evil of killing an innocent human life as PBA does, if our moral reasoning is more than emotivist.  And the reason we haven’t advanced very far today is that we haven’t moved our society toward recognizing in its moral and legal reasoning, not the devaluing of some human life, but the destruction of the inestimable good of the human life that is the child in the womb, regardless of the twitterings of the Magic Moment Metaphysicians.  It is one thing to devalue an object, and quite another to destroy a good.  The danger we face is that, in focusing upon the gruesomeness of the procedure, those we hope to convince that human life in the womb ought to be protected will think that we should be satisfied with this decision, and resent any efforts to push ahead.

Still there is hope today.  God has given all of us the gift of reason.  Justice Kennedy’s decision at least recognizes that the being killed is a human life.  And with such a recognition in hand, perhaps we can begin to move our fellow citizens to reasonably consider what it is about this kind of procedure that rightly moves them to judge it to be morally abhorrent, rather than find it simply a matter of their own distaste for blood and gore.

From Mirror of Justice posted 2007-04-18.

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