Ethics: August 2008 Archives

Obama on Abortion

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I've tried hard to make sense of Barack Obama's various statements, stumbles, votes, and explanations related to abortion. With many of them, I haven't succeeded. I've come to the conclusion that he simply hasn't thought hard about the issue and that he's grossly unaware of many of the important background facts, both about the legal background and the general philosophical conversation about this important issue. I wanted to put my conclusions together in one post, with links to some of the places where I've spent more time on the details for some of these things.

1. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks it prohibits using the word 'person' for a prematurely-born infant. Supreme Court precedent does prohibit certain kinds of laws from restricting abortion, but it never does so by defining the moral status of a fetus (it simply ignores that issue as if it's unimportant) or by declaring anything about which human beings count as persons. I've discussed this issue at length here, with some followup discussion here, and those who were defending him in the comments didn't seem to me to have anything that really helped.

2. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks he can require the kinds of exceptions to abortion that his voting record shows he insists on (and the Supreme Court has consistently required) while saying that mental health exceptions only mean diagnosed mental illnesses. This is not how pro-choice politicians opposing laws without mental health exceptions have based their opposition, and it's not how the Supreme Court has taken it. Any mental distress or psychological harm counts as a legitimate exception, according to Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and pretty much all abortion decisions the Supreme Court has rendered where it's come up. (The only exception is the one instance since the 80s when the conservatives have won the day, the second time the Supreme Court heard a case on a partial-birth abortion ban. The removal of the mental health exception there applies only to one method of late-term abortion and not to all late-term abortions.)

What's interesting about this is that it pulls Obama (1) to the left of the Supreme Court on the first issue, to the point of refusing to support a law that requires doctors to comfort and care for born infants who happen to be premature enough that it's unlikely but possible that they'll live and (2) to the right of the Supreme Court on the second issue, to the point of refusing to accept the limit on abortion restrictions that the Supreme Court has imposed, that any psychological trauma, even if not a diagnosed mental illness, can justify an abortion no matter what other circumstances occur (including bans against exactly that instance of abortion). So far there's no inconsistency.

But what Jan Crawford Greenburg points out is that Obama is on record opposing what he's been saying in #2. It's not just that he's on record saying it but has flipped to oppose it. He's currently supporting legislation that opposes his current position in #2, and he's promised that it will be a top priority upon assuming the office of president. The Freedom of Choice Act would basically remove all state and federal restrictions on abortion at any time and for any reason. Is Obama just talking out of both sides of his mouth? Or does he really not understand how badly he's mucked things up on this issue?

Numbers 5 and Abortion

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Until I saw this post by Chris Brooks at Homeward Bound, I'd never encountered any pro-choice use of Numbers 5. The passage describes a procedure for determining whether a woman accused of adultery was guilty or innocent. It's generated a lot of discussion for other reasons, and since I read two commentaries on Numbers a few years ago I remember a lot of the issues that occur in those discussions. But abortion wasn't one of them, as far as I remember.

The pro-choice use of this passage is as follows. The penalty for a divine determination of guilt is for the woman's stomach to swell and for her to become barren. Pro-choicers then say that if she's already pregnant as a result of her adulterous relationship (which would happen often enough that it's going to matter for a lot of cases over many years) then the punishment would mean the death of the fetus. That reveals God's attitude toward fetuses that they don't have the kind of moral status adults have.

Now there are a number of things to say about this argument. Chris said some of them. But one thing in particular makes me think of this argument as completely crazy, and it didn't occur to me until I saw commenter Vinny's response to a comment I had left. Suppose following this procedure would lead God to cause a miscarriage every time the woman was pregnant and really had been unfaithful. Why couldn't God just prevent conception in the cases where he knew he was going to judge someone in this way? Vinny is assuming God couldn't.

But that kind of response is even unnecessary. Think about all the people God causes to die throughout the pages of the Bible. Some of them are punished for outright sins, such as Uzzah's refusal to follow the prescribed manner of carrying the ark when he touches it, Ananias and Sapphira's willingness to lie about how much they'd given to appear to have given everything they'd gotten, or Aaron's two oldest sons' burning of strange fire in the early days of the tabernacle, contrary to God's command only to burn a certain mixture of incense with a specific recipe. On the other hand, some people die because of other people's sins, and sometimes this is directly decreed by God. David and Bathsheba's first child dies as a judgment for their sin, a nice parallel of an infant in the same circumstance as Numbers 5 would be describing for a fetus if it indeed implies a miscarriage. God's judgment for David's census involves a very large number of people dying, and the same is true of a few occasions during the wilderness wanderings in Exodus and Numbers, where likely not everyone who died was guilty.

So it may well be that Numbers 5 reveals God's attitude toward the unborn. I'll grant that as long as the pro-choicer grants that these other passages reveal God's attitude toward adult human beings, even ones innocent with regard to the crime being punished. Once that's clear, it's very hard to make this pro-choice argument without also claiming that it's ok to kill adult human beings because God does so. Murder is still forbidden, even if there cases where God kills a human being in judgment for someone else's sin. You can't infer a lower moral status of a fetus from Numbers 5, because you'd also have to infer the same lower moral status for adults based on other biblical passages.

This is the sixth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation that I've been re-posting here due to the demise of Right Reason.

Having presented the Augustinian background to my approach to Christian political interaction, I want to move now to an application of Augustine's principles to contemporary American politics. I should say that I write as an evangelical, with particular views on what Christianity amounts to and what the church is. But these are views that I believe I share with Augustine, and thus those who are not evangelical may well agree with me on enough of them to arrive at similar conclusions.

I want to keep two kinds of questions separate. First, there are Christian motivations for certain views on how Christians should seek interact politically with the rest of society. Second, there are political reasons that might appeal to people who are not Christians regarding how much role religion should play in political decision-making. I want to focus on the first question in this post. For now I'm ignoring questions about what Christians (or members of any religious group) have a right to do politically, to what extent it is legitimate politically, morally, legally, constitutionally, etc. In other words, I'm leaving aside what sort of role religion should have in the public sphere as a general question that people of different faiths and people of no faith could all agree upon. I'm simply considering what a Christian should be motivated to think about these issues.

I am not ultimately going to ignore such questions, however. My next post will focus on exactly those questions. For now, I want to restrict myself to why I, as an evangelical Christian, should be motivated to play a role in the political process in a largely secularized society and what sort of role my Christian convictions should lead me to want to have. I'll begin with a very quick review of some of the general principles from Augustine that I agree with, which I've covered in more detail in previous posts in this series.

Augustine recognizes that Christians have two overriding principles that summarize all Christian teaching. One is love for God, and the other is love for neighbor. The New Testament clearly teaches that you cannot do the former without doing the latter. (It also teaches that you cannot truly do the latter without doing the former, although that isn't important for what I want to say now.) The highest calling of the Christian, indeed the Christian's most important moral obligation, is to love God, and that requires loving one's neighbor. In applying this point, Augustine insists that loving one's neighbor involves seeking what is good for those around us, including those who are not themselves Christians. To put it in terms of the Two Cities model, those who are citizens of the City of God have a moral responsibility to seek what is best for the earthly city.

This is the fifth post in my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation.

In my last post in this series, I looked at Augustine's views on authority and his analogy between civil government and other levels of authority. That took me through City of God 19.16, and now I'm ready to move into section 19.17, which is where he focuses on the main question I wanted to move toward. I thought the issues I've been expositing so far are important to have some grasp of to see what motivates Augustine on these issues, but this is the real payoff. In 19.17, Augustine gives us his view of how members of the earthly city and members of the heavenly city interact in society, and that leads to his discussion of the principles I'm going to want to apply to Christians interacting with a society like what we have in the U.S. today.

So far we've seen the value Augustine places on order in society. It's relatively easy to see why order and authorities in society would be important within the system of the earthly city. It's a compromise between human wills much like the kind of social contract some of the ancient philosophers envisioned (most notably the Sophists and Epicureans). Augustine has no problem talking about that as an explanation of how it is that governments or slave relations might form, at least when they do so in as ideal a manner as is possible from the mindset of the earthly kingdom. People seek rulers for an ordered society and thus give up what they might otherwise be able to do in order to protect themselves from further harm and get what they can of peace in this life. People thus compromise and unite because it would be worse for them not to.

Slavery could also be explained this way in some cases, since in some cases it was something like the bankruptcy system of the ancient world. You would sell yourself into slavery to serve someone else for a certain period of time, and your benefactor would thus assume your debt and pay it off. You transfer a debt you can't pay for a debt you can pay, but it means giving up your economic independence for a time. Even slaves taken as a result of war are exchanging service for someone for the chance to continue living rather than to die as a result of being the spoils of war. So even forcible slavery can in many cases be seen as a kind of compromise between two wills.

But what about the heavenly city? How can its incompatible mindset cooperate with the earthly city's self-interest-based social contract? Doesn't it have higher aims? According to Augustine, the heavenly city in this life also has the limitations of this life and the surroundings of evil people, and thus there is a need to participate in such systems. The people of the heavenly city really belong elsewhere, but for now they're here and thus need to participate while awaiting the restoration of the ideal state when such things are no longer necessary. So the earthly city and the heavenly city are thus intertwined in a sense, both seeking the same goal of peace in what form it can be had here.

The earthly city seeks that as its only possible goal (given that others will prevent one's absolute self-interest), and the heavenly city seeks it as the best possible thing for now (but with the expectation of something greater to come). Members of the heavenly city should seek to obey laws, honor authority in the earthly city, and observe the kinds of earthly relationships that exist in this life that will not be necessary in the next, because that's important for loving our neighbor. Members of the early city will do the same out of self-interest. Thus for both the earthly city and the city of God, this seeking of order in society through authority and law is merely a means to an end, even if the ends differ for the two groups. The intermediate goal is common to both, and it thus makes sense for the two to agree to seek the intermediate goal to the extent that it fits within the ultimate goal of both cities.

What about cases when they can't agree on intermediate goals? If laws in the earthly city involve religion, and they conflict with the heavenly city's obligation to serve God first and foremost, then the heavenly city's laws take precedence. But this also means that the heavenly city couldn't have laws in common with the earthly city that involve religion, since the heavenly city's laws would not serve the interests the earthly city has carved out for itself. If it really knew what was best for it, it would serve God and not whatever other religion it may follow (if any), but everyone serves something, and the earthly city replaces the true God with other things, whether gods or other pursuits. In the early Christian period, this meant persecution of Christians for not following the religious laws of the earthly city.

The heavenly city thus follows whatever laws do seek some sort of earthly peace, provided that they don't conflict with the obligation to follow God above all. Those in the heavenly city should follow whatever different methods of seeking peace their particular earthly government follows, which will differ in different governmental systems.

In my next post, I'll look toward how Augustine might apply this in our contemporary setting.

This is the fourth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation.

So far this series has been background for Augustine's views on civil authority and the relation between Christians and civil government. Before I get to the final payoff in terms of that issue, I want to present his views on various levels of authority in society from his concentrated treatment of that subject in City of God 19.14-16. It's the closest thing in that work to a political philosophy, even if it's really more of a social philosophy. I'll turn to City of God 19.17 and his views on the relation between the two cities in the next post, and then I'll look to the contemporary scene after that.

City of God 19.14 looks at the desires of the earthly kingdom. Augustine sees the earthly kingdom as naturally tending toward a self-interested ethic. In our natural state, apart from conversion to Christianity, we all want peace of body and soul, and that means not wanting distress or hardship. Animals demonstrate this by shunning death and seeking to satisfy their pleasures, but we have reason and can do it on a more rational level. He sees fallen humanity as imperfect and unable to do this perfectly without help from God. Thus the life of those in the earthly kingdom won't be the life that really is best in terms of self-interest. He thinks only the Christian life is the good life in that sense. But the aim is the best life in terms of self-interest.

While the members of earthly kingdom have self-interest as a root motivation, Augustine insists that the citizens of the city of God have a higher motivation. God commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourself. The highest thing to want for oneself is to love God fully, since God is the most perfect good and most worth loving. Therefore, it counts as an equally high goal to want others to love God, from family to complete strangers. This requires being at peace with everyone, which in turn requires (negatively) seeking to do no harm to others and (positively) seeking to do good to others whenever possible, particularly in spheres when one has authority over others.

An ideal leader has in mind the best interests of those being led. Someone good at this is seeking to love the other as self, which means doing what's best for that person. That means that giving orders from an authority position, when done in the ideal way, is just helping that person along. This would be true of a political leader, a leader in a family, and those who oversee the work of others (which would include the master-slave relationship).

He provides little evaluation of the social structures of his day. There's no comment on whether slavery is the best form of handling the problems that led to its institution in the ancient world. There's no comment on whether households should be structured as they were. As we'll see, he also offers no view on what sort of government is best. These aren't the questions he's interested in. Augustine is seeking not to restructure the societal relationships of his day but to reverse how authority figures should think about their role in their relationship, so that they see themselves as serving those they lead instead of the more natural view that people manage other people in order to get the others to do whatever they want them to do.

Matthew Franck notes that on one of Barack Obama's exam questions from when he was teaching law, he asks whether an equal protection challenge can be brought against a law requiring states to be color-blind. Franck says he knows of lots of people who think the equal protection clause requires states to be color-blind, but he hasn't encountered a serious argument anywhere that such laws violate the equal protection clause. I haven't either, but I don't read law reviews. Still, such an argument isn't hard to imagine, and I think it's actually a sound argument.

The equal protection clause entitles people of all races to equal protection of the laws. The laws therefore need to be able to rely on the distinction between members of one race and members of another if they are to ensure that each race is equally protected by them. Therefore, color-blind laws, which disallow the state from paying attention to race, violate the equal protection clause.

It sounds like a pretty good argument to me. As a policy issue, I don't mind restricting affirmative action in universities to class rather than race, or at least ensuring that the standards aren't lowered as much as they are. There's a significant argument that the way affirmative action is typically practiced in that setting (as opposed to in the workplace, which is a very different matter) seems to me to harm the people it's intended to help, given that admissions officers already go out of their way to promote diversity (so there's no discrimination to combat at that level), and it means accepting people who won't be able to do as well and then will appear less good when they graduate than they would at a lower institution with much higher grades and more time for extracurriculars. There are other negatives too, but that's the one that seems decisive to me. I think it's much better to work at the high school level and below to help kids do better in school, to care more about school, and to think of college as something worth doing.

But I can't see how it could be good to ban affirmative action by not allowing a state to recognize racial distinctions in any way. That sort of law is not just bad policy. It really is unconstitutional because it prevents enforcement of the equal protection clause.

Remember that Born-Alive bill that requires an additional doctor present at an abortion to keep any survivor of an abortion alive? Back in February, I wrote about Barack Obama's insistence on not passing such a law in Illinois, finding it at best puzzling given his party's wholehearted passing of the law in the U.S. Senate, with people like Barbara Boxer and organizations like NARAL endorsing the law.

As I said in my previous post, I don't think it's fair to call Obama a supporter of infanticide (as distinguished from abortion) because of this. At the same time, I don't see any consistent justification for opposing the law, and his own official reason didn't hold up. He said it was because the federal version had a neutrality clause that stated that the law takes no stance on the issue of the moral status of the fetus, while the Illinois law had no such clause.

At the time, it seems that Obama himself had held up a neutrality amendment in committee, so he was the one to blame for the laws not being similar in that way, and that's no reason not to pass the law if you do support the federal one. I concluded that either he didn't really support the federal law (and was thus lying about his views) or he was just inconsistent in the various things he's said without any sense of really believing anything clear on the matter.

Now it seems Obama actually did put the neutrality amendment before his committee. But then he and all the other Democrats on the committee voted against putting the amended law before the whole Illinois Senate. So, again, I'm not sure what to make of this. Is this another example among many of him simply lying about a past position that embarrasses him politically because it's far to the left of the mainstream, hoping no one would catch up with him on it? Or is there some way to put together what he's said with this revelation? I suppose he could have forgotten what his reasoning at the time was, but it's been an issue in the campaign long enough that he should be thinking it through and preparing a response that fits with the actual Senate records.

What possible motivation could he have had to pass this amendment and then still vote against the bill? It's not just inconsistent with what he's been saying happened. I'm not sure it's even internally consistent. What would be the point of voting for the amendment (an amendment that I'm pretty sure the Republicans had added) and then voting against the amended law? Was there some other amendment to the law that his party, who was in the majority on the committee, somehow couldn't get away from the law? That sounds unlikely. But if it was something in the law proper, then why would he say he would have been fine with the federal version?

According to Justin Taylor, Obama had also defended his past actions by saying "there was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances...." (See the 8/12 JT comment here.) He cites a David Freddoso book that says that's factually incorrect. Perhaps Obama misunderstood the law, so he may not have been lying, but if that's right then he at least hadn't done his homework, which as a legislator he ought to have been doing. This is second-hand information, so I'm open to correction on this, but I think if these things are right, then this piece of Obama's past that already reflected very badly on him is probably at least a little worse than it had seemed.

This is the second post in my Right Reason guest series from last year at the now-defunct Right Reason blog.

I want to begin this series looking at Augustine's views on the topic I'll be discussing, but before I get into his views on the direct issue I'd like to present a few of his background views that will be relevant to the more direct discussion of religious motivations in public life and civil government.

Augustine doesn't ever (to my knowledge) discuss the best form of government. He's not really interested in political questions for their own sake. He is interested in God's role in history, in individuals and among nations and rulers, including both good and bad rulers. He does think there are ethical questions about how to govern, and he's interested in how Christians as part of a political entity should live and participate, but his ultimate concern is the relation between what he calls the City of God and what he calls the early city. This does include those in government, and thus he does have some things to say that affect political matters.

The City of God is an important enough concept that he named what's considered by many to be his most important work after it. The City of God is not actually a city or political entity but rather a spiritual reality, manifested by people who follow Jesus Christ. Christians compose the City of God, and their primary identity is in that relationship, not in any political, cultural, social, ethnic, or whatever other identity-forming relations they may have. The stark contrast between the City of God and the earthly city is crucial for understanding Augustine's views on Christians and civil government.

Each group has its own mindset and what we would now call its own value system or worldview. Augustine sees the City of God as valuing what God would value (or at least valuing to move toward valuing those things more). The earthly city, on the other hand, is largely self-interested. It's not that all ethical theories developed by those in the earthly city are hedonistic. Augustine is well aware that that's not the case. He discusses Plato and the Stoics at great length in City of God, and he acknowledges the difference between their views and those of the Epicureans, who were genuinely hedonistic in their explicit normative theory.

But even the views of Plato and the Stoics are self-interested, even if they aren't selfish. All the ancient philosophers were concerned with the good life, i.e. a life of flourishing, a life of well-being. But this mindset takes the good life to be merely what's a good life for me to have. For Plato and the Stoics, the good life is an internal matter. It's what sort of inner state is good for me to have. For Epicurus, it's also internal to me. It's about avoiding pain. The ancient skeptics sought to avoid having beliefs. Even Aristotle, who recognized external goods, was primarily concerned with how such goods help the individual to flourish, to lead a fulfilling life.

In contrast, Christianity places primary value outside oneself, in God, and in the concerns of a God who is directed by the concerns of his creation. He does say that such a life is the most fulfilling, the life with the most value for me. But what gives it that value is not merely that it's the best life for me to have. This is why he thinks those outside the City of God are in a sense merely self-directed. Without a divine purpose, he sees nothing but what kind of life you want for yourself, even if the life you want for yourself involves doing altruistic deeds.

It's also worth being aware of Augustine's views on human motivation. He sees all human beings since the fall as having disordered desires. We don't want what's best, at least not in a way that reflects how good different things are. We want things that are less good more than we want things that are more good. He sees virtue or excellence as having rightly-ordered desires, having your desires organized in a way that your highest priorities are the things most worth desiring, with other things occupying a lower priority level. Disordered desire is a consequence of the fall, and only those whose priorities are reordered by God in conversion to following Christ can begin the process of moving in a direction of excellence. This is ultimately his explanation of why the earthly city doesn't have the most important good (i.e. God) as its highest-motivating factor, and the City of God does (at least when its members are not sinning). That allows him to form such a stark contrast between these two mindsets. There's a metaphysical difference between the two groups.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 14, 2007 8:48 AM

I'm not going to dignify this enough to give it a further link beyond all the attention it's getting, but I can't resist commenting on the idea of desecrating the Eucharist in an internet stunt. In case you haven't heard of the events this is about, there are two posts about it in the latest Christian Carnival. You'll have to follow the links there.

This is one of the lamest things I've ever heard of, and the fact that people are insulted is extremely unfortunate, because they shouldn't be.

Consider the Catholic view. According to transsubstantiation, this action takes something that isn't a piece of bread but is literally Jesus, the same Jesus who was pierced by swords, spears, and rusty nails on the cross. So someone pierces Jesus with a rusty nail and attaching some pages from the Qur'an and Richard Dawkins' diatribe against theism. I'm not sure what the fuss is. He didn't do anything that hasn't already been done, if to the Catholic view is correct. In fact, the person performing this act (along with the rest of humanity) was already the cause of Jesus' death, and thus he'd already done the thing that he so proudly did. He'd already killed Jesus, never mind poked a hole in him with a rusty nail.

Of course, if the Catholic view is wrong, then this action is of little significance except as the immoral act of deliberately trying to cause offense to a large group of people, most of whom are very peace-loving. That's nothing at all to proud of, but why should I as a Protestant be offended that someone seeks to offend Christians? Isn't that what Jesus said to expect? Didn't he announce that lots of idiots will come along and say all sorts of nasty things about his followers? So someone from an anti-theist site decides to offend Christians, and he does so publicly. It's ok to recognize the immorality of his motivations, but I don't understand why people are up in arms about this.


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