Kerry and Philosophy, Part II

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Doing Things With Words has responded to my critique of his post on Kerry's philosophical ability. If you want the context, read the other posts first. I wouldn't be able to summarize them easily, so I won't try.

He objects to my argument that Kerry doesn't seem to have a coherent position on abortion with a nice theoretical distinction that fits with Kerry's words. Kerry says life begins at conception, and that's why he opposes abortion. Yet since he doesn't think a fetus is necessarily a person, he doesn't want to make abortion illegal. Life is grounds for moral status, and personhood is grounds for legal status. If a fetus is alive, it has moral status, but it might not have legal status if it's not a person. OK, that's a consistent position. It's also plausibly what Kerry meant. I'm not sure that even disagrees with how I read Kerry. My real problem with this is in how Kerry actually describes his position.

He says he opposes abortion because of human life beginning at conception. Then he says he can't bring himself to restrict in any way at all the right of a woman "to choose", simply because not everyone in the world has seen what he sees, that abortion is wrong. Once you've said something like this, though, I have to think that it's a philosophical distinction for the purposes of dodging the issue. Doesn't moral status bring moral rights? Which is more important, moral rights or legal rights? I say the former. He has to say the latter. Besides, does he really expect us to believe that every single law he's been willing to pass has been something that every single person on this planet would endorse? There are large numbers of people who would oppose many of his votes over his 20 years in the Senate. I'm afraid that merely lining up a technically consistent position doesn't really get him out of the real problem. Maybe I didn't make that clear enough.

I don't think anyone in the Bush administration cares about policy except insofar as it is relevant to politics; that is, except as it allows them to win over voters, assist the base, and in general retain power.

I'm sorry, but I'm just not willing to buy into that sort of conspiracy theory. A hermeneutic of suspicion has never seemed to be a good idea to me, given that the only chance of trying to understand someone is to give them some charity. If you want to do this with Kerry, I ask that you do it with the Bush Administration as well.

He gives a story in defense of what's been called partial-birth abortion having a medical necessity, but that case is not about any sort of abortion. It was a dead fetus already, not one to be aborted. It's thus not a counter-example to my claim that the procedure is never necessary for health reasons. If it justifies a change in the law due to unclarity or something (which I'm not committing myself to, due to not having gone back to read the law carefully), then the law should have been revised to cover only abortions rather than claimed to have been unconstitutional. I don't know if the law wouldn't allow this kind of thing, but if it doesn't then it can so easily be amended. This case then doesn't create any problems with the law itself but with an unfortunate consequence of some unclear wording.

He gives an interesting argument, one I agree with in part. Why is this procedure singled out? If abortion is wrong, all abortion should be opposed. Why just this one? If it's not in general wrong, why would this procedure be wrong? Pro-life extremists say this sort of thing also. They say that if you don't ban all abortion, then you're really not pro-life. That's nuts, though. If you come to realize that a ban on all abortion would get 10 votes in the Senate and that the courts would overturn it immediately, then why bother trying to do something that won't succeed when you know you can limit abortion by doing something with a much greater chance of passing and remaining law? That's one reason this procedure is singled out. That requires some people who don't think abortion should always be illegal to sign on to the ban, but those are the people to target here, not the pro-life ones. I think they might still have a reason if they think this procedure is more cruel than others. I don't know enough details to judge that, but I know people who think that. One of them, interestingly, is from Norway, and he finds this particular practice to be morally horrendous even though he finds nothing wrong with abortion in other circumstances.

Even if you don't accept the cruelty argument, the reason I initially gave stands. If you're able to begin delivery, and you're already past the viability period (which begins about midway through pregnancy nowadays and is slowly creeping earlier), then the right to abort based on the right to control your own body is no longer a right to abort but a right to premature delivery. If the child who is born does not die, then you have no right to its death. Banning this procedure therefore will avoid unnecessary deaths.

There's more I disagree with, but I think it will come to each having a very different starting point, so I don't feel inclined to pursue them much further, and they relate less to the original issue anyway.

2 Comments

As I read you, Kerry is a moral relativist. He believes a certain way in his own sense of what is moral right, but requires that for a legal right there must be consensus of the majority. His sense of moral right is no more than another's sense of moral right.... a typical relativistic view.

It seems your main problem with Kerry and his thinking on this is with his lack of a standard. so you seem to perceive this as a problem.

Relativistic morality does not perceive that as a problem.

Their problem is not that they have requirements of a standard, but that they are driven to arbitrary criteria in making laws. That is where they will feel the pinch.

But then you are stuck in your own abortion stance as you now outline it.... because your contention with certain pro-life platforms is that they are not politically feasible: a relativistic rather than standard-based argument.

The question on abortion is 'where is the standard'? and then 'what are the allowed exceptions'? Not whether one relative morality is better than the other relative morality.

Because on that, Kerry has the more defensible and cohesive stance, culturally.

Which is the base for cultural wars rather than law which functions with reason.

Which is what I imagine you would argue for.

I don't think Kerry is a moral relativist, at least not from his words. He sounds as if he's saying he believes abortion is objectively wrong but that not everyone sees that. He also believes that it's objectively wrong to expect others to follow a moral code that they can't see to be true. None of that requires relativism. I also don't know why you think I think he has no standard. The legal standard he would give, as the post I'm critiquing says, is personhood, and if a fetus isn't a person then there's no reason to have laws against abortion, even if it's morally wrong, just as we don't have laws against lots of other wrong actions such as lying to your best friend, calling people you don't like bad names, etc.

I'm not sure what you're getting at about criticizing abortion platforms. The only abortion platform I've argued against is the one that opposes any restriction on abortion, the one the Democratic ticket seems to be supporting. What I don't like isn't a platform. It's the insistence of some people that someone isn't really pro-life or has done nothing about abortion simply because he supports a bill that partially restricts abortion that I think it's nuts. That's not a platform. It's name-calling. It's saying that someone who tries to get something done on abortion rather than being impractical and wasting time on initiatives that don't have any support really doesn't care about abortion, and that's obviously false. If you call that relative morality, then I don't think you understand what moral relativism is. I'm making an objective claim about what is right.

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