The Contemporary Liberal Assumption

TheSocialContractI recently listened to a series of lectures on the subject of political philosophy by a Yale professor. They are fairly well done and I recommend them. But what struck me while listening to them is a common assumption found within all of the perspectives he mentioned. This assumption remains without argument even though it requires one.

He mentioned five theories. Marxism, social contract theory, utilitarianism, anti-enlightenment theories and democracy. With each of these he gave at least two different versions. Furthermore, he was careful to give the best version of each of these theories, indicate how they would respond to objections and why someone might believe each one of them. Finally, these theories cover all major theories of politics that exist today. So any commonality between these theories is a major assumption of our time.

Each of these five theories assume that content can be separated from form. There are a few ways this assumption shows up. The first is that descriptive politics can be separated from moral theory. This idea is that we can describe how politics works without using any moral claims. The second way this shows up is the idea that the freedom people exercise in political activities can be separated from moral theories and from human nature. There are a few ways this idea shows up. Governments are encouraged not to prefer a particular moral scheme, a particular religion or a particular theory of human nature. Instead, they are encouraged to allow everyone to follow their moral scheme, religion and theory of human nature so long as it does not interfere with anyone else. The final way this shows up is in the description of human rights. Human rights are not only understood in a secular fashion, but they are also separated from any theory of human nature, or the good that these rights aim at. This assumption that form can be separated from content in these three ways is what I will call The Liberal Assumption.

Nowhere is the lecture was the liberal assumption ever defended. In fact, it was not even mentioned. This assumption was simply brought in as a matter of unexamined moral theory. This assumption is rarely defended in the modern political theory simply because all of the modern political theories assume that it is at least mostly true. There are some few philosophers who disagree with this, but their objections are mostly ignored.

This assumption was soundly rejected by the major philosophers of the ancient and medieval period. Each of them placed a study of politics after that of ethics. Each of them used their metaphysics, including the metaphysics of human beings, in order to understand both ethics and politics. So the modern liberal assumption is new and therefore hardly something obvious or something that does not require argument.

Given all of this, the key question becomes obvious. Is the modern liberal assumption true or false? In order to answer that question, the liberal assumption must be divided into its three parts. The first part is the descriptive assumption, the second is the assumption of unbounded freedom and third is the assumption of ungrounded rights. It is also necessary to make sure that any examination of these assumptions is done while imputing the most plausible theory to it. If the liberal assumption is extremely common, then we must assume that it is well-grounded. If we can show that even the most well-grounded liberal assumption is false, then it is false generally. If we show that the most well-grounded liberal assumption is true, then we can examine exactly how well-grounded it must be in order to be true. On the other hand, if we use a less well-grounded assumption, then any conclusion will be less certain, and it will be easier to doubt it.

There is one further issue. We cannot assume any particular form in order to determine whether or not this assumption is true or false. For if this assumption is true given utilitarianism but not true given social contract theory, then this is an argument for utilitarianism. It would not be an argument against the liberal assumption. We cannot even limit the forms to the current contemporary theories. Perhaps some new form will be discovered in the future. So we cannot limit ourselves to a particular form or range of forms when discussing the truth of this assumption.

Abortion is Murder, Abortion is Legal

I was reading an short post by Jessie Golem on the topic of abortion recently. Jessie argued that abortion should not be denied to those who were victims of rape. She had a number of other arguments as well, but I wish to focus on this one. If abortion really is murder, and murder is wrong without exception, then abortion cannot be permitted even in the case of rape.

Before examining this, we must be very careful to avoid confusing this issue with several related ones. This is an examination of the ethics of abortion. It is not an examination of how to counsel rape victims, how to solve the problems of rape or how to solve any kind of political problem. As such, I am limiting myself to this question: what does Jessie’s argument tell us about the abortion debate?

Jessie makes a central claim in the middle of her post: “I firmly believe their approach [to ending abortion] by advocating to change legislation and prevent access to abortion clinics is doing more harm than good, and that their ideology to “end abortion” will only result in more death.” I am not interested in the evidence behind this claim. I am interested in why this claim should be persuasive at all. There are some actions that we evaluate by comparing the good brought about with the harm caused. But we cannot simply assume that all actions are evaluated that way. The belief that all actions are evaluated that way is called consequentialism. The belief that some actions are wrong, regardless of the consequences, is called deontology. Christians have traditionally placed murder – the intentionally killing of an innocent person – in the category of the deontic. In other words, they have understood the issue using deontology rather than consequentialism.

Behind the debate over whether of not abortion should be legally permitted is another debate on which metaethical framework is correct: consequentialism or deontology. Since each side has a commitment to a different position, this means that the current debaters are talking past each other. This is not to say that Jessie is at fault. Most pro-life writers simply do not know any philosophy and focus more on sharing their ideas and gaining followers than they do on explaining why they believe in any sort of detail.

Having said all of this, this debate is further complicated by the distinction between morals and politics. There are a number of things are morally indifferent but illegal. Which side of the road it is legal to drive on is one example of this. There are also a number of immoral things that are not illegal. Insulting and degrading other people are an example of that. So simply being morally indefensible does not mean that something should be legally forbidden as well. There needs to be an argument for that. The general argument of the pro-life position is that abortion is a morally indefensible practice, therefore, it should be legally forbidden. There are two assumptions behind this claim. The first is that in any legal calculation involving lives, all lives are to be counted equally. So any calculus on abortion must include the deaths caused by abortion – the dead babies.  The second assumption is that saving lives is the highest priority of any legal framework. Jessie agrees with the second assumption. The first assumption is much harder to prove and generally requires a complete philosophy of government.

There are two philosophies of government that are held by pro-life writers. The first is a natural law position that generally follows Thomas Aquinas. That would be my position as well. The second is a kind of theocratic model. In short, that model claims that the rules of the Bible ought to be applied to government. It is easy to see how the theocratic model makes abortion illegal. The problem is that the theocratic position is unconvincing to anyone who does not already believe the Bible. The natural law position is unpopular, but it relies on knowledge known by everyone. It makes abortion illegal by simply moving immoral acts (by nature) into ones the government is obligated to forbid.

Generally speaking, no pro-choice writer is a believer in natural law theory or theocratic government. But pro-life writers do not generally state these assumptions. On the other side of the fence, pro-choice writers often assume their philosophies of government without comment as well. But no pro-life writer actually believes in Rawlsian political theory (liberalism), Marxism or any of the popular secular theories. So any debate that ignores these issues is unfruitful.

In conclusion, Jessie’s argument assumes a liberal political theory and a consequentialist moral theory in an argument against those who believe neither. Her pro-life opponents assume a theocratic or natural law theory and deontic moral theory. Since neither discuss the underlying disagreement, the argument either collapses in a fit of emotion or meanders in no particular direction. The abortion debate is unsolvable without discussing these underlying philosophical disagreements.