Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Just Be Natural...Or don't

In this debate on abortion Pro-Lifer Ross Douthat doesn’t want to invoke nature, much less natural law, in it. One can sympathize with his reluctance because he wants to rely on arguments which will persuade his opponent and it unlikely the Pro-Choicer here, Michelle Goldberg, would be interested in what is ‘natural.’

Yet Goldberg repeatedly uses the term “de-humanizing” in the video. What does she have in mind when using such a term? She says it is de-humanizing to be forced to carry a pregnancy to term and humane when freely done (or not done). The guiding principle here is Autonomy or the Free Individual.

Really, the woman’s nature (her babymaking equipment or her motherhood) are presenting obstacles to her freedom. The woman’s nature has to be conquered through technology (contraception, abortion) so she can truly be liberated.

We might ask the following questions to this Lockean account of human beings. Are our bodies simply extrinsic to our very selves? If ultimately we are free individuals and nothing more, does that mean masculinity and femininity are irrelevant to who we are as persons? Does this Autonomy worldview account for or capture our experience?

To return to Douthat, you can see his reluctance about bringing up nature in his answer why the mother should “put up with the burden of pregnancy.” He answers that she is “uniquely situated” i.e. she and no one else is in a position to protect the unborn. This seems like a more complicated way of invoking nature. The woman is the MOTHER of the unborn and thus has obligations to the unborn that no one else, save the father (another nature term), has.

1 comment:

  1. You call it a Lockean account of human beings, but I think that's a mistake. You rightly note that Goldberg's appeals to what is 'dehumanizing' are, in fact, ultimately intelligible only as appeals to human nature. Yet for Goldberg and those who think as she does, 'nature' is the wrong word, because insofar as human beings are autonomous rational agents, they stand out from, over and above nature. Now, who knows what Goldberg would really want to say about this question. But insofar as she wants to reject appeals to nature out of hand and yet rest her defense of abortion on claims about what is and is not dehumanizing, she must be committed to some such view. And that sort of view is not Lockean, but Kantian: Kant was certainly not the first or the only important thinker to present rational agency as utterly distinct from the 'natural' -- he ultimately owes this view to his Lutheranism, I suspect -- but he inaugurates the tradition in which the dichotomy of the human and the natural comes most to the fore.

    That said, while I think that Goldberg et al. should recognize that their invocation of 'dehumanization' commits them to the view that nature does matter, I don't think that they are thereby committed or ought rationally to be committed to crude natural law views, which sometimes make the same mistake of supposing that the narrow modern conception of nature has any normative or moral force (thus the invincibly bad arguments of the form "the penis is designed for heterosexual sex, therefore it should be used for heterosexual sex alone..." and the like). In fact, I think the whole debate could get on just fine without any references to "nature," which in our time and place will almost invariably be understood in an unhelpful way. Notice, for instance, that there is no need to invoke 'nature' to explain the sense in which mothers are uniquely situated with regard to their unborn children: all one really needs to say here is that the child is utterly dependent for its survival and development on its mother and her choices. If Goldberg wants to deny that this dependence is relevant, then that's fine; ultimately, her reasons will not stand or fall with her acceptance or rejection of the terminology of 'nature,' but with whether or not she can show that unborn children do not make any kind of moral claims on us in the way that newborn infants do, or that 9-month-olds do, or 2-year-olds, or adults.

    In other words, the whole 'nature' thing is ultimately a rhetorical red herring: we could fix in on the same disputes without employing that terminology, and in our culture we'd be forced to do that anyway because we have to explain that the relevant understanding of nature runs against the grain of predominant assumptions about what the character and scope of 'the natural' are.

    But hardly anybody's views on this subject are the products of careful rational reflection anyway, so it perhaps doesn't make any difference what rhetoric anybody uses, unless it's primarily emotional rhetoric: if more people feel sympathy for aborted babies than for women forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, then pro-lifers will get what they want; if the reverse, then the reverse. Reason does not rule in politics; thus perhaps our time would be better spent elsewhere.