The life which is unexamined is not worth living.
At the recent Ron Paul Rally in Tampa, Ron continued to generate the kinds of in-depth questioning I never dreamed would be heard in political campaigns: that the Austrian business cycle might overcome Willie Horton’s furlough as an issue for a presidential contest was beyond my imagination. At this same rally, economist Walter Block’s discussion of the abortion question has given rise to numerous blog/e-mail responses on that topic. My talk at this same forum – which immediately followed Walter’s – focused on the importance of people further extending their inquiries into the nature of a society grounded in peace, liberty, and individualism.
The cause of peace and liberty requires each of us to take our understanding into ever-deeper levels. Ron is the most highly visible example of this practice, but he is not alone. There are many others – both living and dead – whose inquiries permit us to flesh out the details of our thinking on the topic. Ayn Rand, Robert LeFevre, and a renowned Marxist with whom I studied in college, played such roles in my life. While I was never attracted to Marx, my professor’s seminar led me to more profound inquiries than could be found in bumper-sticker one-liners. Rand’s ideas did much the same: only by examining them with energized effort was I able to answer questions implicit in her philosophy, a process that resulted in my rejecting most of her central views.
One does not have to agree with someone in order to learn from them! Whatever the subject-matter – be it the study of history, economics, law, philosophy; or gardening, auto mechanics, raising children, etc. – the quality of your effort will depend upon the continual refinement of the questions you raise. We live in a culture that demands answers to unasked – or unfocused – questions. As a consequence, most of us end up with little more than opinions, but no understanding.
Walter’s “evictionism” approach to the abortion issue invites us to explore deeper levels of our understanding. That I don’t agree with his approach or conclusions, does not detract from their value in helping us refine our thinking. When a few people booed his ideas – a tactic that should have reminded those at the rally of the treatment Ron received from conservatives in the audience at some of the debates – Walter was correct in criticizing them for their anti-intellectual behavior. One uses the ideas of others as vehicles for examining and questioning their own.
I also disagreed with Walter as to the place and time for raising this issue. This was a rally to celebrate Ron Paul – particularly on the eve of a Republican convention to which he was persona non grata to the political establishment – and the focus should have been on him as well as the eleven-thousand young people who came to honor his efforts. This refinement of the abortion issue was ill-timed only in the sense that it is the kind of inquiry that follows from earlier questioning about the nature of life, “who” is a person, what is property, etc. Walter raises one of many “lifeboat” discussions that are essential to refining the boundary lines of one’s thinking. (“If your neighbor kidnapped one of your children and was torturing her, would you trespass upon his property to rescue her?” “Of course I would, but I would still treat my act as a trespass!”) I am reminded of a number of young “libertarians” from the 1960s who insisted on introducing their ideas to others by jumping right to such deeper questions as “do you own your children and, if so, can you sell them?” Sound thinking necessitates and produces a refinement in the quality – the form – of the questions we ask. In the words of Milton Mayer, “the questions that can be answered are not worth asking.”
The value of Walter’s thinking on this topic is reflected in the questioning, debate, and puzzlement generated in the minds of others. David Kramer sent me two e-mails outlining some of his own thinking on the topic, and asked for my opinions. His e-mails have prompted me to make this response. Walter has accomplished what any intellectual effort should produce: further questioning of the subject matter at hand.
I have long regarded “life” as sacred; not “sacred” according to some formal religious doctrine – I am an agnostic in all matters, be they religious, political, artistic, or any other realm of opinion – but as a quality innate in, perhaps, all of existence. I remember as a small child feeling anger toward other kids who would step on ants or bugs for no other apparent reason than to kill them. Even today, my children – and grandchildren – call upon me to come “rescue” a spider crawling up our living room wall. Those who might regard the life even of an insect as not worthy of our interest might ask themselves: how might you respond if NASA’s Martian explorer should discover a fuzzy caterpillar on that distant planet?
But narrowing the inquiry to the issue of when a given life form becomes a “person,” I regard this as occurring upon conception. It is the point at which one acquires his/her unique DNA that the sense of “thingness” is transformed into a “personhood” that is relatively free of arbitrary definition. This is also why I am unable to regard a corporation – or other institution – as a “person.” Such abstract bodies have no existence or will of their own, but are only tools through which their owners act. I like the bumper-sticker that reads: “I will accept the idea of a corporation as a person when they execute one in the electric chair.”
I also believe that it is wrong to kill or use any form of violence against a person, which (a) helps to define my social philosophy and (b) makes the killing of an unborn child an act of murder. You will note, here, my refusal to dehumanize the unborn by referring to any of them as a “fetus.” The treatment of slaves, American Indians, and Hitler’s non-Aryans, by defining them out of the category of “persons,” ought to awaken us to what we do to one another.
Because of my disapproval of all political systems – which are universally defined as agencies that enjoy a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory – I am unwilling to sanction the use of violence to either (a) physically prevent, or (b) punish a woman for having an abortion. At this point, I am often asked “are you saying that, in a society grounded in liberty, people are ‘free’ to kill one another?” My answer is “yes.” Even in our present command-and-control world of legalized violence, each of us is “free” to kill – or as a friend of mine once modified the proposition – “free to try to kill” – others. Such “freedom” does not mean that we may rightfully or morally do so, only that we have the capacity to inflict harm upon others. From a libertarian perspective, the question becomes (as it does in our daily lives): how do we exercise our freedom so as to minimize harm to others?
In my view of the world, a pregnant woman will make her own decision as to whether to abort. I may disapprove of the decision she makes, but I will not resort to – nor sanction – force against her to make her conform to my value. I ask only that she be willing to defend my freedom to make choices in the world.
I am also unable to accept Walter’s characterization of the unborn child as a “trespasser.” Such a person came into being through no act or will of its own (although I am open to the argument that the sperm had a powerful will to become a person by outracing all others in order to be the one to impregnate the egg). Whether the unborn child was conceived voluntarily – as an act of either love or lust – or through the violent act of rape, is irrelevant to the question of its sense of personhood. In the case of rape, the worst that can be said of the unborn person is that it is the product of wrongdoing, not a wrongdoer itself.
Treating the unborn child as a “trespasser” further begs the question. If someone was to deposit a newly-born baby on my front doorstep, would I be entitled to (a) ignore the child, or (b) place it on the curb, neither act worsening the plight of the child? However Walter might answer this question as a philosophic matter, I think I know him well enough to predict that he would not respond in either manner. Would he – or I – have an “obligation” to the child to come to its rescue? As a matter of some imposed “duty,” I would answer “no” to both possibilities. But as a response to our self-interested needs to protect the value of life – which is what our philosophic principles should be about in the first place – I have no doubt as to how each of us would behave in this circumstance.
The argument on behalf of the woman being able to abort the unborn child often includes the proposition: personhood does not arise until the child is able to sustain itself independently. To this contention I reply: who among us – even as adults – is able to sustain our lives independently, without help from others? I could grow my own food, or produce my own clothing or shelter, or bandage up my serious injuries. But the reality is that I depend upon others – voluntarily acting within the marketplace – to supply such goods and services. It is because of specialization – the division of labor – provided only by exchange with others that we are able to enjoy a higher quality of life than any of us could create independently of others.
We have also learned – from studies of men and women in isolation – that we have such a profound sense of connectedness with others (we are, after all, social beings) that we can quickly become delusional or even mad if we are separated from other human beings for too long a period of time. Furthermore, who among us can truly say that work they perform is unrelated to the responses of others? Why do I teach and write if not to communicate to others? What farmer, physician, artist, restaurant owner, scientist, actor, or the provider of any other goods or services is able to accomplish their purposes without a dependence on others?
It is also argued that an unborn child is unable to physically sustain itself outside the mother’s womb. That is true – particularly in the early stages of pregnancy – but the proposition would seem to apply to all of this: would any of us be able to survive without the society of others? A variation of this same pro-abortion argument is this: the unborn child is still in a stage of development. Just watching my children, grandchildren, and students – and especially talking with my wife – remind me that I, too, am “still in a stage of development.” The psychologically healthy life is one in which learning – i.e., further refining the quality of the questions we ask of nature and one another – dominates us.
I cannot end this inquiry without discussing the inherently contradictory and conflict-ridden slogans that make the abortion question so confusing to those who refuse to look beneath the surface of issues. Those with a bumper-sticker mentality embrace either the phrase “pro-life” or “pro-choice” to explain their thinking. Most supposedly “pro-life” people are hostile to life. If you doubt this, ask them about their views of war, capital punishment, police brutality, or the free and spontaneous nature of what “life” is about. As for the “pro-choice” people, you will discover few who are prepared to defend the choice of people to not have to pay taxes, or to be forced to provide for abortions, day-care centers, etc.
As the weekend at the Ron Paul Rally reminded us, there is nothing so creative and liberating as the free flow of information, as well as the questions generated therefrom. Now that the presidential campaign is in full lassitude (i.e., the corporate-state establishment will not allow Ron Paul to be heard in whatever form of mutual babbling Obama and Romney will pretend to debate) it is time for intelligent minds to pursue their own lines of questions. As I recall looking into the faces of the eleven thousand young people at this rally, the fun is just beginning!