[This article is the second in a series by David D’Auria. He is a statistician from Arlington, Virginia. He currently serves as acting president of Rehumanize International’s DC-Maryland-Virginia chapter. All views are his own.]
In my last article, I asked pro-lifers to Take the Long View by considering not just the innocent lives that could be saved through rapid abortion bans, but the human cost that would be borne by future victims of abortion, if we act imprudently and create a backlash.
This is asking a lot. Thinking so far into the future is hard and fraught with uncertainty. Some pro-lifers might doubt that the risk of backlash is very large; some might argue that the backlash will come no matter what, and we had better act before the opportunity passes. I don’t want to dismiss either of these views. But since we have been held back from our political efforts for fifty years, and there is a human temptation to be rash after such a period, we should at least consider a slower solution, before rushing in.
A consistent life ethic policy toward abortion would simultaneously prevent violence against fetuses, while respecting other rights owed to other people. I want to argue for an informed and flexible plan to enact that policy. Informed in that we should not be cynical or naïve about the prospects for change in the future, but rather predict the future based on the best available evidence, and flexible in that we should update our predictions when new information becomes available. Consider for instance, the following observations:
(1) Many pro-choice Americans hold an incoherent worldview.
The problem can be summed up briefly: if you don’t believe in human rights for all humans, then you don’t believe in human rights.
Not every right prevails in every situation, but to deny that some particular human being has human rights contradicts the idea that humanity generates rights. And yet, in left-leaning cities like the one I call home, many people claim passionately to believe in human rights, while leaving out the humans for which pro-life groups advocate. Pointing out this contradiction does not jolt a person out of their view, but induces a confusing form of cognitive dissonance. More on this later.
(2) Although they haven’t captured the popular imagination, there are some reputable scholars who consistently oppose the doctrine of human rights.
Sometimes the opposition is framed in anti-colonial manner: human rights are said to apply to all people everywhere, but they were developed – critics say – disproportionately in the West in a history that is hard to separate from the European Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian values, making it hard to tell where imperialism ends and human rights begin. Taking a different angle, legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues that the rights we protect are nothing more than “moral heuristics,” or rules of thumb that apply in most cases, but can be discarded in particularly hard cases. (“How Change Happens”, Chapters 14 and 15.) And as John Mearsheimer and others have argued, America’s commitment to universal values such as human rights might be bringing us into preventable conflicts with other nations. In this way, scholars can frame human rights as a stubborn and potentially dangerous commitment, making it seem less attractive.
These arguments are a challenge for the Consistent Life Ethic. Their presence in the public discourse shows that at least some in the West would consider getting rid of human rights entirely, which would resolve the contradiction pointed out above. If you don’t believe in human rights, it’s no problem that you don’t believe in rights for all humans. So it’s important to note, while the consistent life ethic is a coherent worldview, it is not the only coherent worldview.
(3) When an incoherent worldview collapses, its timing is not as predictable as you might think.
The “revolutions” that occur when a popular worldview becomes untenable have been a subject of deep interest for historians and philosophers. The philosopher Kwame Anthon Appiah, in analyzing the downfall of a several inhumane practices of the past, put it this way: “As with dueling, what brought footbinding to an end cannot have been the discovery of arguments against it. The arguments are obvious: they were widely known from the earliest days of the [the practice].” (The Honor Code, page 72, emphasis added.) These inhumane practices were abolished not because arguments against them, but because of changing social circumstances that bring about moral revolutions… and the general public ignored or rationalized their own hypocrisy, until the proper social circumstances emerged.
So, while we should be planning for the collapse of the incoherent, pro-choice worldview and confident that it is coming, we should be modest about our ability to make it happen on a predictable timetable.
(4) When a deeply held worldview collapses, self-serving logic usually prevails.
Settling on a new worldview after the old one has collapsed is known as the “resolution of revolutions.” Appiah’s work does not directly address this problem for moral revolutions, but he does base his theory on the previous work of Thomas Kuhn, who documented how in scientific revolutions (and political ones) a more self-serving logic prevails. Young proponents of new theories invent the criteria for choosing their paradigm at the same time as their theories themselves. Rival schools of thought are “always at least slightly at cross purposes” and “are bound to partly talk through each other.” (The Honor Code, Introduction; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, page 148.)
This brings us to an unsettling conclusion. It’s conceivable that a critical mass of Americans would rather openly dispense with the idea of human rights than forgo the practice of legal abortion. The revolution could backfire.
Whether this happens would depend on when the question is asked, and on the immediate consequences that the question would have for the person being asked, and the people or ideas they are already invested in.
(5) Today’s political coalitions will influence – but won’t determine – the coalitions of tomorrow.
In the world described by Kuhn and Appiah, where factions form around new paradigms and self-serving logic prevails, it matters greatly whether people feel they can safely embrace the pro-life position. Do they personally know any pro-lifers or human rights skeptics? How do those people make them feel? Are they more personally invested in human rights causes or in pro-choice causes? Can they imagine themselves holding such a position? If that moment of reckoning happened today, I think we would be in bad shape. Most of the pro-choicers in my life find relativism and rights-skepticism to be comforting statements of humility, and opposition to abortion to be frightening or offensive. If they really had to choose between human rights and abortion, would they choose human rights? I don’t think we’re there yet.
Even at this early stage of analysis, the contours of a plan are taking shape. If we take steps now to that make human rights look attractive relative to the alternatives, we might change a large number of minds in a short period of time… and avoid a backfire effect against the entire human rights project.
This year, I want to create a public first-draft of how we might prepare for this moment of reckoning. My hope is that others will read it, disagree with it, and offer arguments that change the scenarios presented. I will say more about why and how we should dedicate ourselves to this plan, in forthcoming articles.