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Liberalism, Abortion, and Community - a Note

Thomas Fleming, the editor of _Chronicles_ and president of The Rockford Institute, has posted a new column flaying George Weigel, noted cafeteria Catholic as regards Just War doctrine, over the latter's commentary on Pope Benedict's chastisement of Nancy Pelosi, noted cafeteria Catholic as regards virtually everything. Fleming's argument may be adumbrated as follows: Natural law, as evidenced by the diversity of interpretations throughout history, and particularly by the inferences drawn by those who stand at the headwaters of the tradition, underdetermines the natural status of acts of abortion; critics of abortion, therefore, who maintain the contrary, and who postulate a universal duty to prevent acts of abortion, not only conflate Kantian universalism with both natural law and Christian ethics, but demonstrate an impoverished historical understanding.

Assuming that those reading my words will have, after the foregoing paragraph, skipped over to acquaint themselves with Fleming's argument, I would like to offer two considerations, apropos of that argument.

First, from that fact that ostensibly rational and intellectually competent persons disagree, both throughout the history of our race, and across the range of moral questions and the diversity of discourses, it does not follow that any one specific issue is rationally underdetermined, such that, perhaps, only a positive religious commitment can bridge the gap and deliver us to the truth. All that follows is the general conclusion that many things are in fact rationally underdetermined, either in themselves, or on account of the poverty of our understanding or the corruption of our wills. The Greeks and Romans might well have regarded abortion and infanticide as consonant with the natural law; presumably, they also regarded pederasty - depending upon the historical period in question - as either a trivial violation, or consonant with the natural law, judging by the tolerance it was accorded at various times, but it does not follow that they were correct in so regarding it. Likewise with abortion and infanticide. It is perfectly consistent to believe that these offenses are contrary to nature and that, for whatever reason, this is seldom perfectly perceived, even by rational men. Stated differently, the natural law is neither identical or coextensive with its historical contructions or manifestations.

Second, Fleming's argument emphasizes the positive duty of the individual pregnant woman towards her unborn children, a duty grounded in her personal nature - a duty of one specific person towards another(s). In my estimation, the pro-life movement would do well to lay a greater stress upon this fact of obligation, inasmuch as the discourse of rights has proven to be a double-edged sword; such an emphasis will be contingent, however, upon a renewed emphasis upon the Church, and upon community, as centers of authority distinct from the liberal state. However, if this duty, functionally or practically, is mediated solely through the volitional religious commitments of women, and their families and faith communities, it is unclear how this differs, functionally speaking, from the liberal doctrine that duty and authority are mediated solely through the wills of equal rights-bearing subjects of the liberal state. If the duty obtains only as between a woman and her child, and does not extend to the proscription of infanticide throughout a society, such that even those void of religious commitment are compelled, to the extent feasible, to observe their duties, then in both instances the obligation only acquires authority insofar as individuals have consented to by bound by that authority. One needn't postulate that the denial of rights to the unborn is a negation of the ontological foundations of the state, itself under the mandate to secure the equal rights of all subjects under its jurisdiction, in order to grasp the difficulty; it is sufficient to observe that the evasion of duties conduces to the destruction of society, and that public authority is not, therefore, bound to extend toleration to such derelictions. Society, in the persons of its authorities, is not obligated to defend its own subversion, and the continuation of society ought not be a perpetual plebiscite.

Perhaps it will be said that I have failed to comprehend the argument, one way or the other, in which case I will be delighted to receive correction. None of the foregoing, moreover, is motivated by animus or hostility, as I have previously lauded Fleming's work The Morality of Everyday Life on this very website. I simply do not perceive that the question of abortion is merely a matter of individual religious commitment, or of sub-communities within the polity. This is not a question of whether my wife is obligated to prevent abortions in China; it is a question of whether public authority is permitted to tolerate them here.

Comments (25)


1. The immorality of abortion can be known by natural reason.

it does not follow that:

2. Every man, or even any man, actually knows through natural reason that abortion is immoral.

Fleming seems to assume that since Weigel is committed to (1) that he must be committed to (2), and that since (2) is false (1) must also be false. He is wrong on both counts. I take it, Jeff, that this is more or less what you're getting at in your first point.

Fleming seems to be the kind of fellow who, if a neoconservative tells him the time of day, will find some way to spin "It's 2:25" into an implicit expression of Kantian universalism and its Wilsonian foreign policy consequences. Ridiculous and counterproductive.

Having said that, I agree completely that the pro-life movement is ill-served by Kantian arguments. Fr. Hugh Barbour had a terrific article in Chronicles some years back on this topic, making much the same point you make here in your second comment on Fleming.

Well, the two of you are better philosophers than I, given that you can respond to Fleming's objectionable screed in such good, philosophical, and measured terms. And I agree with what both of you say re. Fleming's "argument." Speaking for myself, I feel like retching after reading the piece. What a dreadful little piece of pernicious nonsense, for so many different reasons.

I wonder if he realizes that he's essentially making a "reduce the number of abortions" argument with this statement:

"The cumulative effect of much of the professional pro-life ideology is to distort and deflect the question, away from the really important thing, which is how to convert nonbelievers, who will then be far less likely to kill their babies, toward comparatively trivial legislative policies and judicial agendas."

It is unrealistic to believe that every woman inclined to abort her child can be converted, so are we ok with those who go right on aborting?

And "trivial legislative policies and judicial agendas???" Sure, the courts have had a merely trivial impact on the abortion question in the US.

The particularly pernicious implication in the article is that it is just _so darned hard_ to see that abortion is wrong if you aren't a Christian. Baloney on stilts. The implication of that is really bad. A non-Christian abortionist can see that he is dismembering an infant just as much as an ostensibly Christian one, and is without excuse. And the accusation of "lying" against Weigel, because Weigel said that being pro-life isn't just some "weird Catholic thing." That isn't lying!

Even the anti-individualism is suspect in this context. If a murderer were to send a bullet through Mr. Fleming's heart he would rightly be tried as an individual person for murdering an individual person. Mr. Fleming has value in the eyes of God as an individual human being made in the image of God, and so does the unborn child. It doesn't derive its value by being the property of its father (for instance), as in the Roman custom Fleming half-praises.

It's just an awful article, and particularly so as it purports to appeal to the "communitarian" instincts of its conservative readers, thus loosening up their commitment to the horror and evil of abortion as a crime in natural law.

I started writing a more extensive comment, but Fleming's article is just too contemptible in too many ways to bother. Anyone who doesn't think Fleming is attacking a straw man should go through the following exercise: in a single sentence gloss, express the difference between the natural law and divinely revealed law. Do this in a way which is at one and the same time understandable to a popular modern audience, and immune to any criticism by an academic philosopher as too simplistic. If you can't do this, just throw up your hands and admit you are a moron.

I've got to agree with Ed. I myself have a number of times criticized Weigel's cringeworthy attempts to turn the term 'prudential judgment' into a shield from criticism when it comes to the war. But this looks very much like a case of "if a neocon said it, it must be contemptible". To some paleos it is more important to hate neocons than it is to be, you know, actually objectively in the right. Kudos to Maximos for not letting it pass without criticism.


I'll second Zippy's kudos and echo Lydia's comments about murder, as I thought the same thing while reading Fleming's blog post.

I was also reviewing the blog post comments and when I came across this gem from Fleming:

"Not being a fan of Leon Kass and having failed to learn from him anything I did not know already, I do not see that he has a great deal to contribute to this discussion."

That basically tells me all I need to know about Fleming and is a nice reminder why it is good for my blood pressure that I stay away from him and "Chronicles".

While I agree for the most part with Jeff's critique of Fleming's piece, I fail to see what's so retch-inducing or hypertension-causing about it. What am I missing?

The general down-playing of the abortion issue, the implication that someone like Weigel is "lying" for saying that abortion is not just a Catholic issue and that non-Christians can see its wrongness, the implication that legal restrictions on it would be "trivial" and that it must be approached in an entirely non-legal, religious fashion only, and the indirect implication that abortion should be regarded as a fuzzy wrong against the community or the father rather than as a grave and horrible wrong against the individual and individually valuable child, by an ostensibly conservative thinker of any stripe.

There is a certain type of paleoconservative (present company excluded) that does indeed tend to downplay abortion. I gather that this is because they are determined to have nothing to do with the so-called neocon pro-lifers. Years ago when First Things was talking about the abortion regime, a friend sent me a Chronicles article (I do not know if it was by Fleming but would not be surprised) that contained some extremely sneering words about First Things on this issue and actually trotted out the old, "Nobody is forcing conservatives to have an abortion" canard.

I fail to see what's so retch-inducing or hypertension-causing about it.
I can put up with a certain amount of irrational raving from paleoconservatives. That naturally comes with the territory of being a very non-mainstream movement, and it doesn't mean that paleoconservatism doesn't have a lot of very important things to say that nobody else is saying. But denigrating the natural law argument against abortion, turning it into a straw man (when I am virtually certain that Fleming knows better) just because a necessarily terse gloss on it came out of the dreaded George Weigel's mouth?

I mean, I get that to many paleos there is no more transcendent form of evil than neoconservatism, not even the wholesale slaughter of millions of children in modern death factories. It is just that when you rub that in my face, it disgusts me.

I haven't seen much downplaying of the abortion issue among paleos other than in some of those that lean more libertarian. Certainly among the Catholic paleos who write for Chronicles I haven't seen it.

And I'm not really sure that Fleming is denigrating the natural law argument against abortion, so much as trying to point out what he believes is a faulty 'application' of it. I'm not real familiar with the nuances of natural law argument, however, so I could be wrong.

Rob G.: I do not think that Dr. Fleming questions the identity of the conceptum--this would be the case if one was questioning the sort of prohibition involved (prohibition against murder vs. prohibition of something else). I think that a big problem with this essay is that his criticism of contemporary NL reasoning is in service of taking on his bigger target: liberal "busybody-ness." I think he misunderstands the derivation of NL precepts, since he writes:

Mothers, in this tradition, do not have a universal obligation to prevent abortion but a specific obligation not just not to kill their children but to nurture and cherish them. This is not like some corollary deduced from a basic logic axiom: It is a specific duty that arises both from the nature that God created and from God’s love for us.

The duty arises because it is derived by reason from the principles of practial reasoning. It seems to me that he mistakenly thinks that NL is somehow derived from a basic logic axiom in the way that many modern philosophers tried to build up their systems of ethics.

I mean to say: he mistakenly thinks that neo-Thomists and the New Natural Law Theory proponents attempt to derive precepts of Natural Law from "a basic logic axiom"...

Though it would be of interest to me to read his account of natural law.

Question: How is the pro-life movement, in its current form, different from a leftist cause?

I think Fleming's critique of Weigel is completely warranted. The pro-life movement not only co-opts leftist rhetoric in order to support its position, it almost always fails to articulate the particular duties of mothers towards their children. How can somebody assert a "right" to life when it was the "right" to privacy that allowed abortion to be made legal? The entire concept of rights is based solely on an anti-Christian individualism that sets a mother against her own baby. As Fleming says, rights are toxic to the fulfillment of personal responsibilities.

Also, the argument is not that the state has no matter in deciding abortion law, it is that abortion cannot be condemned on the grounds that it violates a "right" and therefore requires the intervention of the state.

Finally, it is incorrect to try to infer a coldness to the abortion issue just because Fleming refuses to accept liberal arguments to defend conservative principles. To do so is to truly espouse "pernicious nonsense."

It is safe to say that Weigel's approach to natural law is inconsonant with that of all paleoconservatives. But it is not safe to say that Dr. Fleming's application of natural law to the grave evil of abortion is the same approach as that of all paleoconservatives or even of every other editor of Chronicles.

I've argued in these pages against rights-talk myself. That doesn't make Fleming's attack on the natural law, apparently motivated by the fact that to some paleos neoconservatism is the ultimate transcendent evil, anything but contemptible.

I saw no reference to the word "rights" in the Weigel quotation Fleming gives and characterizes as (of all things) "lying." Perhaps I just missed it. In any event, Fleming goes a heck of a lot farther than to say that we should not use "rights talk" in discussing abortion. And please note that I discussed the wrong done to the individual child, above, without once using the word "right" or "rights."

Exactly. He does go further. His argument is that abstract arguments applied objectively and universally do not constitute natural law and is inconsistent with the philosophic traditions of the Church. Fleming's problem with Weigel's quote is simply that is portrays natural law as an almost mathematical formula that can be deduced from abstract reasoning. This is why he mentions Aristotle. The Philosopher was as serious a moral thinker as can be and did not arrive at the conclusion that abortion was always an evil. This is not to disagree with the Church or even to trivialize the abortion issue, it is to show that ethical questions can never be reduced merely to logical abstractions. This is in complete agreement with Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Thomas and the rest of the Church.

"That doesn't make Fleming's attack on the natural law, apparently motivated by the fact that to some paleos neoconservatism is the ultimate transcendent evil, anything but contemptible."

Again, following Edward's comments, I don't see it as an attack on the natural law per se. Like Maximos, I've read Fleming's book 'The Morality of Everyday Life,' and while I disagree with certain parts of it, it is not because I found Fleming hostile to natural law ideas.

portrays natural law as an almost mathematical formula

I think that's baloney. Weigel implies nothing of the sort. Nor do people who talk like Weigel (including me, for that matter) think anything of the sort.

Here is Weigel's entire "natural law" statement. It is taken, not even from a carefully composed and edited magazine article, but from a brief blog entry:

[The Pope] also underscored ... that the Church’s opposition to the taking of innocent human life, at any stage of the human journey, is not some weird Catholic hocus-pocus; it’s a first principle of justice than [sic] can be known by reason. It is a “requirement of the natural moral law” — that is, the moral truths we can know by thinking about what is right and what is wrong — to defend the inviolability of innocent human life. You don’t have to believe in papal primacy to know that; you don’t have do [sic] believe in seven sacraments, or the episcopal structure of the Church, or the divinity of Christ, to know that. You don’t even have to believe in God to know that. You only have to be a morally serious human being, willing to work through a moral argument — which, of course, means being the kind of person who understands that moral truth cannot be reduced to questions of feminist political correctness or partisan political advantage.
Now Fleming may or may not disagree with Weigel on natural law in some larger sense, in a back and forth of texts in some other place. I wouldn't know: I don't read either of them because I find both tiresome, though I've never expressly criticized Fleming on anything before now (as far as I can recall) and I've spent a lot of time criticizing Weigel.

But having the kind of hissy fit that Fleming did over this particular blog entry, focused on this particular blog entry, is just pathetic. There isn't anything even slightly objectionable to what Weigel says here when read as a very brief blog entry intended for the general public. It would, of course, be completely unfair to read it as if it were a lengthy, scholarly, nuanced treatise on moral theology. The very, very strong impression I have is that the objection is not to the statement, but to the fact that Satan said it.

The big oohgah boogah objection comes from this: "You only have to be a morally serious human being, willing to work through a moral argument...". Fleming picks at these seventeen freaking words in a blog entry as if they were a lengthy, subtle expression of the distinctions between natural law, tradition, and revelation.

If Pat Buchanan or one of Fleming's favorite colleagues had said exactly the same thing, literally the same exact words as a brief blog reaction to the Pelosi meeting with the Pope, my guess is that we wouldn't have heard a peep from Fleming. And as a very paleo-sympathetic person myself, I'm glad to see the paleo Maximos call it out; because this is just the kind of thing that is very paleo-discrediting.

Oh, and I forgot to say: if Fleming would have criticized Buchanan or one of his favorite colleagues, or even someone he doesn't know from Adam, for writing those exact same words in an offhand unedited blog reaction to the Pelosi/Pope meeting - if he would have had the same reaction in that case, then he is attacking the natural law -qua- the natural law, and he can go pound sand.

I should add that I have known morally serious people convinced of the rightness of the pro-life position by thinking about non-religious arguments and working out the implications. Out in Washington State one of them--a secular Jew--gave me his paper on the subject, showing him thinking it through. It was impressive to see someone do that. The fact that it doesn't happen more often shows the perverseness of the human will and the strength of societal pressure. It doesn't show that the pro-life position is some "weird Catholic hocus pocus" and that we are "lying" if we portray the evil of slicing up infants as something secular people can see without converting to Christianity.

Out in Washington State one of them--a secular Jew--gave me his paper on the subject, showing him thinking it through.

If you still have it, that it would an interesting blog post. Judaism is one of the most pro-choice religions unless done for trivial reasons like gender discrimination.

I have a question for any natural law historians out there, when looking into the delayed ensoulment theory, Augustine and Aquinas disagree on when there is a completed human form of body and soul, but the limit of said union is 90 days. For reasons I haven't been able to discover, this was replaced with quickening in the early 1200's. It still remained a serious sin against marriage and maternal duty, but for over six hundred years it was the official Church position that homicide did not occur until quickening. Does anybody know the reason(s) quickening was chosen?

Why quickening was chosen as opposed to...? I'm not sure I understand your question. It's the natural science/biology as understood that determines whether the conceptum is human or not. If a conceptum does not have a soul until the quickening, then it is not a human individual, etc.

My answer, Step2, for what it's worth is...limited biological information. Let us please remember that "quickening" is--we now know as a sheer matter of fact--a truth about the mother, not a property of the child. Naturally in the days before ultrasound, they couldn't see the little 'un in there doing somersaults (as I have seen) and sucking his thumb long before he just happens to be _big_ enough for his mom to feel him moving and flailing around.

If I still have a copy of that old paper, it would be in a paper version and by another person, so I would have to get permission to post it even if it were scanned in. I don't, in fact, know where it is. But it was the pretty standard argument concerning the problems with "personhood theory," infanticide, etc. Of course, he took it as a basic premise that killing born infants is wrong. I suppose some people would question that, nowadays.

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