Abortion

I have chosen the title of this post with some fear and trepidation. This is a red-hot topic and there is almost always much more heat than light at the core of the discussion argument. But I do believe that the abortion issue may help us to understand why women would vote for a misogynist such as Donald Trump who regards women as so many trophies to be collected and spoiled in a way only he is privy to. Thus, as we ponder the whys of this election I think at some point this issue needs to be addressed.

The battle between the “pro-lifers” on the one hand and the “women’s rights” on the other comes down to a matter of faith, not reason. This is why the argument becomes so heated so fast. One either believe that life begins at conception or one believes that life begins when the child is removed from its mother. If one does not believe that life starts at conception then there are grounds for the claim that the mother’s rights over her own body are paramount. There is no scientific evidence that either of these claims is the correct one. It all depends on how we define “life.” Those who oppose abortion are convinced it begins much earlier than those who favor abortion. And the courts have determined, somewhat arbitrarily, that is begins after “fetal viability.” Again, there is no evidence that any of these views is the correct one. And since there is no evidence one way or the other the argument comes down to which group has the larger pile of rocks to throw.

The irony, of course, is that many of those who claim to be “pro-life” are also in favor of war and capital punishment which gives the lie to the claim that all life is sacred. And those who argue for women’s rights are frequently quite happy to see women in the workplace held down by a glass ceiling and making less money than the man next to them doing the same job. We are not known for our consistency, we humans.

My thesis advisor at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas,  wrote a book titled The Moral Life and The Ethical Life in which he said, at one point, “the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart.” In other words, there are times when we must take another human life. It is a matter of expediency: kill or be killed. St. Augustine insisted that the only time war was justified was to defend oneself and one’s group against direct attack. A “preemptive strike” is not justified. But the moral question is whether the taking of another human life is ever justified. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that life is a human right and if we take another’s life we forfeit our own and he therefore justifies capital punishment on those grounds. Vivas would say “no.” The taking of a life may be a matter of expediency. But that is not a reason that carries any moral weight whatever. Since we cannot ever justify the taking of another human life under any circumstances (Augustine and Aquinas to the contrary notwithstanding) we can only attempt to reconcile ourselves to the fact once it has occurred: this is a psychological, not a philosophical, problem. The soldier with the heavy heart must somehow learn to live with the fact that what he did was wrong. And societies must seek humane alternatives to capital punishment.

Thus the abortion issue becomes increasingly cloudy as we try to deal with two questions at the same time: when is a human being alive? and once alive are we ever justified in taking that life? I confess that I do not have the answer to either of these questions, though I find the second question the easier one. I think Vivas was correct: we cannot justify taking another life; we can only seek to reconcile ourselves to it if it happens.

In the current frenzy of a political contest unlike any previous political contest I suspect these questions are at the core of the explanation why 30-35% of the  women in this country might want to support such a candidate as Donald Trump: they hope he would appoint a conservative judge to the Supreme Court who might somehow “overthrow” Roe v Wade and make abortion illegal once again. Hillary Clinton is sure to nominate a liberal judge and we will have more abortions and more death, in their view of things. For those who see this election through the wrong end of the telescope, thereby missing all the larger issues, I suspect this argument wins the day for many of the devout — whose faith I shall never question, but only ask that it be recognized as faith, not reason — and wish they would turn the telescope around.

 

Punishment

In a recent blog I quoted Tiger Wood’s statement that stroke penalties in golf for slow play were unacceptable because they would cost the players money. I want to pursue this a bit and talk about punishment in general. It does seem to me that the purpose of punishing someone for breaking the rules, or the law, is to make them want never to do that thing again. In golf, if players don’t want point penalties, then that would be an appropriate penalty precisely because they don’t want it: it would deter them from playing slowly. If we levied a penalty the players thought acceptable, it wouldn’t be effective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a penalty at all. I sometimes wonder how Tiger ever got admitted to Stanford!

In any case, it raises the question of what punishment is all about. Thomas More, in his remarkable book Utopia, thought punishment ought to improve people, make them better. In our culture, historically, we have operated on the principle of deterrence: punishment ought to deter future undesirable behavior. But we apply this principle in strange ways. If a man robs a bank at gun point, we “put him away” for a few years. It is supposed to keep him from robbing banks in the future — not only while he is in jail. But we know this doesn’t really work, and the culprit is often robbing again once he is back on the streets — having learned new tricks while in jail, no doubt. The principle itself is strange anyway: years in prison for taking money that doesn’t belong to him. It’s the same punishment we dole out for a man who repeatedly beats his wife: doing time. In neither case does the punishment make much sense.

Don’t we like to say the punishment ought to “fit the crime”? Years in prison for beating one’s wife doesn’t seem to fit somehow. Perhaps we ought to put the man in a locked room with two or three other men and have him beaten up until he feels what his wife felt. This, in brief, is the principle Dante operated on in his Inferno: the punishment fits the crime. For example, usurers who were deeper in Hell than murderers since they commit a violent crime “against art, God’s grandchild” sit around a plain of burning hot sand with bags of coins strung around their necks forcing them to watch the bag through eternity — presumably waiting for it to grow larger. After all, that’s what usurers do: they lend money at interest and make the money grow without actually doing anything to earn the profits. At least that was the Church’s view at the time.

Dante, of course, never questioned the appropriateness of capital punishment. It was generally accepted by the church that one who commits murder forfeits his life and deserves to die at the hands of the state. Aquinas argued this in his Summa Theologica, insisting that those who murder are animals and ought to be treated as such themselves: it’s their choice. In principle I would agree, but as I have argued in a previous blog the flaw in the scheme is human fallibility. Jurors and even eye-witnesses make mistakes. If humans never made mistakes then capital punishment would be entirely appropriate. But we make mistakes more often than not, so it can, and does, lead to terrible blunders. Be that as it may, “doing time” is a strange way to punish a person for taking another person’s life, or for most of the acts we regard as criminal.

We aren’t very creative in thinking of appropriate ways to punish people, though I can think of one interesting counter-example. A judge in a township not far away from me fined a construction company $100,000 for bid-rigging — and insisted that the amount fined go to four regional universities to establish programs in business ethics. My university already had the program, so we used the money to start a lecture series and brought in some very interesting people who spoke to us about business and ethics. Now that was appropriate punishment, and a very constructive way to “make good” on a rotten situation.

But this example is certainly the exception. In general we like to think the punishment  ought to fit the crime; it ought to deter the criminal from further crime and, as Thomas More thought, ideally it ought to reform the criminal and make him a more useful member of society. This last element we seem to ignore for the most part in our desire to “get back” at the criminal. So in the final analysis, we punish people to make ourselves feel better, to relieve our own stress at the thought that the guy is “out there,” or to satisfy our own need for revenge. None of the lofty reasons we give for punishing people seems to hold water. So we settle for what makes us feel good.