Poor Stanley Fish suffers a lot of abuse from conservatives who accuse him of being a relativist or something worse when he’s only trying to explain how arguments actually work in public. Which is to say, that they don’t always work the way you want them to. An argument may be final and definitive, and still people of intelligence and good will misunderstand, ignore, or reject it, often with an impatient wave of the hand.
Thoughtful people don’t always understand this.
They think that public argument is an enterprise like chess. You win the game when you checkmate the other player’s king according to the rules. It’s all clear and simple. But arguing a point, especially a moral point, is often like playing chess with someone who does not know the rules very well and isn’t all that keen on them anyway, because he thinks friendship or good will or making sure no one feels like a loser more important than following the rules. And anyway, the rules are artificial and imposed upon him, plus they don’t make sense (what’s with the knight?).
You checkmate the other player’s king and find that he doesn’t see that you’ve won the game. He will say “I’ll just move my king here,” and you say “But there he’s in check from the bishop.” Your opponent grunts as if to say, “Well, you may have a point,” and then says, “Okay, I’ll move him here then,” putting his king diagonally next to a pawn. When you object that his king is in check from your pawn, he says brightly, “Oh, being in check from a pawn doesn’t really matter. Your move.” And then, were you to humor him and keep playing, on his next move he’d take your pawn with his king, and laugh while doing it.
That is the way public arguments very often work out. They work out this way perhaps most often when the subject is a moral and especially a bioethical one. These decisions affect peoples’ lives more directly than many others, and even if the decisions do not affect them now they either close or open options they may want to exercise in the future. Tens of millions of people have aborted their children, or encouraged a daughter or wife or girlfriend to abort her child, or conceived a child through in vitro fertilization, or even let a loved one die.
That is the great X factor in these discussions. They involve the most personal matters possible. Many of the people we would argue with have a prior and very personal commitment to a position they cannot rationally sustain, and the only way to argue about it in public is to argue very badly, but with conviction. Slandering the other side (“attack on women!”; “imposing your values!”; “care only about babies, not mothers!”) helps a lot, as does ruling out of bounds their fundamental convictions (“separation of church and state!”). Confusion helps them more than clarity, even when they think they have the better case.
“Even if you only kill people three percent of the time, that still makes me uncomfortable,” Caleb Jones told the young woman standing on the street raising money for Planned Parenthood, who had just offered him the official line about abortion being a small part of their work. “But they’re not really killed,” she responded.
“You mean they survive?” I asked, genuinely surprised by a response I had never heard.
“Well . . . Not really.”
“Hm . . . so it seems they do get killed.”
That young woman’s “Well, okay” was not a concession, as she went on to prove. Jones asks her when it is right to kill a baby and she answers “I don’t know. I’m not to say” and a little later “Well, it’s still a woman’s right. She can choose.” He presses her to tell him what the woman is choosing and she says “Choose whether or not to continue with the pregnancy.” How would she do that? he asks.
“By getting an abortion.”
“Yeah, by killing them.”
“Well . . . .”
Jones makes a logically irrefutable case but it does not move the young woman—that’s a non-committal “Well”— even when he tells her that he has cystic fibrosis and would have been aborted if many people had their way. For some of us that would be a kind of trump card, having in front of us a living example of the man utilitarian ethics would destroy. For her, and for many like herself, the good of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and related assaults on human dignity are premises not to be denied.
This is the world in which Wesley Smith and Ross Blackburn want to argue for human dignity. It is a world unfriendly to both positions, but unfriendlier, I think, to Smith’s than to Blackburn’s.
Smith’s argument does not depend upon appeal to belief in God or in a special revelation. If I understand him correctly, from other things he has written, he believes that we can offer philosophic arguments for understanding man as an inescapably moral being with an essential nature. We can, for example, show that any idea of human personhood, even the most utilitarian one, is incoherent without belief in an essential human nature. These arguments hold that we can prove man to be a certain kind of creature even though we don’t know—or don’t say, for the sake of arguing the matter in public—where he came from and why he is that sort of creature.
In his essay he offers several pragmatic arguments, showing that rejecting human dignity as a premise leads to the rejection of good things most people still value. Quoting Leon Kass, for example, Smith notes that the loss of belief in human dignity justifies an abolition of human liberty that “everyone, whatever their view of human dignity, holds dear.” You will not find many people who want to live in the worlds of 1984 and Brave New World. (Other, that is, than people who think they would be the rulers of those worlds, which suggests one reason this kind of utilitarianism is so popular among academics at elite universities.)
The pragmatic arguments can be summarized as “If you don’t want to wind up down there with alligators and the rattlesnakes, don’t get on this road and hit the gas,” or from the other point of view, “If you like living in the penthouse, don’t blow up the foundations.” Some show that actions that may seem attractive now, like experimenting on embryos to find cures for adult diseases, lead to actions we do not now countenance. Others show that goods we value, like racial and sexual equality, depend upon certain commitments that we endanger or destroy when we take those actions that may seem attractive now.
And they are good arguments, as far as they go. The pragmatic arguments are especially good if we evaluate them not as public arguments to be used with any and all, but as arguments to be used with those in the middle and particularly those (to borrow a political term) on the center-right. And with those among them who care about argument, a group that does not include everyone among even the smartest and most successful. They are not people for whom the complex and subtle philosophical arguments will mean much, but they do sense that ideas can work themselves out in ways they don’t expect or want.
These are people whose moral instincts are more or less sound but pull them in both directions, because the assaults on human dignity seem to achieve good ends. They are people who instinctively dislike abortion but for whom it seems to be “a tragic necessity” that should be “safe, legal, and rare,” who believe the right to life inviolable but for whom the embryo (only ambiguously human) can be experimented upon to help the suffering, and who want to defend the vulnerable but believe personhood somehow depends upon being a certain kind of person with a certain quality of life.
Pragmatic arguments well presented—especially if made personal—may move them to doubt and perhaps even deny the goodness of an action about which they were previously ambivalent or confused. This is especially true when the goal is a limited one of advancing a good program or blocking a bad one and the people to whom we are speaking have only to tilt in one direction, without necessarily being convinced. A man does not have to be sure he’s on the edge of a steep and slippery slope to stop walking forward. All he has to believe is that he may well be on the edge.
Thus I agree with Smith about the possibility and the necessity of engaging these issues in secular terms. We have, after all, no alternative if we are going to speak in the public square, where some people will only listen to secular arguments, and that we must do. You have to speak the people’s language.
And there are people who truly want to know what is good and will listen to reason, people who will change their minds when shown that their principles will take them to places they do not want to go. We can’t be too pessimistic. Man is a fallen creature, yes, but one with a surprising capacity for finding and embracing the truth. And the Christian may hope that reasoning well may lead people to Reason Himself.
But still, the pragmatic arguments do not work all that well. I wish they would, but they don’t. Most of the time, if my observation is correct, people moved by pragmatic arguments will not finally commit themselves because on issues like these they do not respond to conclusive arguments as binding because proven, but as reasons for leaning to one side or the other. They can easily be induced to lean to the other side.
Here I agree with Blackburn, to the extent of insisting that some portion of the Christian’s public voice must be a public witness explicitly grounded upon Christian belief. Just to follow to the end the arguments whose truth they see, many people need Divine urging or Divine threat. God, you might say, makes conclusive arguments binding. And not always because such people need to be rewarded or pushed, but sometimes because they humbly doubt their own instincts or their own thinking, when their instincts or their thinking leads them to positions the great and good (I mean that ironically, let me say) of our society reject.
It may seem an unfair attempt to trump the opposition, appealing to God as well as to argument, but there is a catch: We have to pay for the trump cards. They don’t come in the deck we’ve been given. If we want to argue for human dignity in the public square by appealing to the God who gives us that dignity, we have to make the appeal plausible and attractive by living godly—which is to say, sacrificial—lives, lives that show others what human dignity looks like.
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David Mills is the executive editor of First Things. Caleb Jones’s dialogue, from which Mr. Mills quotes in this essay, appeared on his Facebook page.