Saturday, April 3

Voting for life. The single-issue rationale.

[The brief introduction to this exchange is posted on April 19 as VOTING FOR LIFE: PREAMBLE. The following was written on April 16.] #15
Fanni writes: In your most recent message, you depicted me as "doing the same thing that you are doing." I see this as a mischaracterization because it fails to take into account the dogmatic principle as I have identified it above (and because you have not established, in accordance with this claim, that I employ a similarly dogmatic principle in regard to corporations). You depict yourself as "weighing plusses and minuses" as any responsible multi-issue voter would, but this characterization falsifies every essential point you have made about abortion so as to make it "the most significant issue." You wrote:
"I am doing the same thing you are doing, looking at an imperfect politician (I assume you don't agree with Kerry on every point, particularly the abortion rights point), looking at and assessing the evidence of his plusses and minuses, and coming up with more plusses."
This attempt to establish parallelism between our approaches neglects the fact that, support for abortion, for you, and for reasons that you haven't explained, constitutes a massive minus, a minus so massive that it overrides all other possible pluses – so massive that it does not even permit a quantitative comparison with other types of killing and suffering and injustice or "evil." As for me, I do not approach any one form of violence or injustice with a dogmatic assumption that it is qualitatively far worse than any other. So, when you write,
"I could ask you the same question you appear to be asking me. How many unborn a day need to be killed before you disavow your loyalty [sic] to the man who has vowed to continue to work to expand abortion rights here and abroad?,"
my answer is that, to assess the importance of the number of abortions per day and decide what weight I should give this factor in my assessment of any given pro- or anti-abortion candidate, I need to consider the incidents of abortion in light of other forms of violence, both in a quantitative and qualitative comparison, as well as the candidate's record on addressing this and other forms of violence and the likelihood of the candidate's effecting change. I would have to make a new decision for every candidate and every new context, and never assume the contrary. In some cases, the violence done to the unborn will weigh more heavily than in others. To take a present example, it is my view that pernicious Bush administration policies in so many different areas have caused the issue of abortion to fade in importance in the 2004 presidential election, which is not at all to say that this situation makes abortion more permissible or even 'mitigated'; rather, it is to judge its perniciousness in light of other pernicious activities, many of which are not describable as corporate in nature.

Being a "baby killer" or not being a "baby killer" are not the only two ways of existing in the world. There is also a way that accounts for the violence of abortion other than as a radical, unparalleled evil. This other way tries to diminish the violence of abortion in accordance with its importance in respect to other types of violence. In other words, in taking this approach, I do not begin with the assumption that there is one qualitatively pre-eminent form of unmitigated evil in the world, or at least that there is one unmitigated evil that is the world's most pernicious form of unmitigated evil – the most unmitigated, if you will. And I am not, for that reason – as you seem to be – required to assume and to demonstrate if necessary that all other evils or forms of violence are merely mitigated, or less unmitigated than the evil of abortion. You have been resourceful in identifying such mitigating circumstances and qualities by arguing that this or that violence is merely mitigated because, for example, the president did not personally and single-handedly create the worldwide conditions which have led to millions of preventable fatal illnesses; it is not really known if Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat to the United States (despite – I insist here – massive evidence to the contrary); the American soldiers who killed civilians had been fired upon; the U.S. military reports that it handed out a little bit of money to some of the families of their innocent victims; only several hundred cluster bombs were used in civilian areas, and only several hundred civilians were immediately killed by them; only 17,000 or more Iraqis have been admitted to by the U.S. government thus far to have been victims of U.S. aggression and therefore "tens of thousands" is an exaggeration, etc., ad infinitum.

Unlike you, I am not motivated to elect abortion or any other form of violence as the one unmitigated violence, or the one, 'most unmitigated' violence. (And this is a separate issue, but I am also not motivated to limit my intake of news largely to one single news engine that agrees with my view on a single form of violence, and subsequently to dismiss all other news and investigative agencies as what Bill O’Reilly from Fox News sweepingly calls "elite media.") Although I am not nearly as thoroughly schooled in the history of abortion and its debates and the details of its practices as you are, I have a general awareness of it as a social practice, and a general sense of how widely it is used, how, and by whom. I am not compelled, as you are with respect to so many issues of injustice, to diminish its importance a priori.

This difference between you and me has fed much of our discussion and cannot now be swept aside, because I continue to mark my inability to follow you on the distinction you make between, on the one hand, the violence of abortion and all the responsibilities that are tied to it and, on the other, all other forms of violence and the responsibilities that are tied to them. To give another example, I do not understand why the decapitation by U.S. firepower of a three-year old bystander in Iraq is any more a mitigated form of violence and injustice than is the destruction of a three-month old fetus. In fact, I think this distinction between "mitigated" and "unmitigated" is problematic and ill-suited for this purpose, and I would refrain from using it in assessing the qualitative differences between different forms of violence (whose existence it would be ridiculous to deny, but would call for more refined qualifications). It would be perhaps easy to agree upon the reprehensible nature of any single act of violence, without consideration for anything but the time and place in which it occurred, but I would like to know if we could also agree about the nature of unmitigable offenses generally.

Even if we cannot agree on that principled level, there is a pragmatic argument that calls for not assuming that one form of killing is inherently the worst. If life were what mattered to you most, you would be willing to support, I assume, a candidate whose policies could make a serious dent in, if not eradicate, the 10.5 million infant deaths that occur annually worldwide on account of easily preventable diseases rather than a candidate that has a long shot at best – as George Bush does – at halting all the abortions that take place in the United States. Even if all the abortions in the United States were halted and all the fetuses went on to thrive as democratic citizens, far fewer lives would be saved by the complete eradication of abortions in the United States any given year than can easily be saved, beginning in the short term, by following the W.H.O. guidelines for addressing the 10.5 million annual infant deaths. (Preventing abortions worldwide would be an even taller order and, as his record demonstrates amply, George Bush is hardly the sort of leader who can marshal international support for U.S.-led initiatives, especially those that, for better or for worse, touch on the Christian heritage.) The international organizations capable of addressing these preventable diseases are already in place, and the project of, say, curbing the significant number of fatal malarial infections in Africa is not as politically divisive as is the project of outlawing abortion in the United States. Thus, such a humanitarian project, which has stalled alongside many others under the watch of a corporatized presidency, would be inclined to receive less resistance, and meet with greater success. The W.H.O. expert in the report we read claims that eradicating this number of preventable deaths would be relatively easy, with the proper financial support. Now, this is hardly a hair-brained 'hypothetical' at which you can simply respond by saying, "I don't go there," or a presentation of figures pulled out of the air with the intent of obscuring facts. What surprises me is that, after so many years of advocating "life" and a "respect for life," and the "right to life," you seemed unaware of the extent of the ravages of easily preventable diseases on human populations. The question, in any case, becomes one of whether, in learning about these ravages, you would consider either shifting your fight for life to where it can likely have a dramatic consequence in the short term (by, for instance, informing yourself better on these issues and writing to your Congress members and to the President to complain about their irresponsible slothfulness and indifference with respect to these preventable diseases snuffing out children's lives) or giving up the pretense of fighting primarily for life and admit that there is some other force or principle animating the groups that appropriate "life" as their rallying cry by calling themselves "pro-life" while simultaneously limiting themselves to the narrow topic of abortion (whose narrowness I think is apparent when considered in light of many other life-and-death issues).

Although I don’t understand the basis for your distinction between mitigated and unmitigated "evil," I perhaps do understand its necessity and the importance it holds for you. I say this because, to be able to so organize your political orientation in line with a single issue, you must disallow any other violence or evil of being fully unmitigated in the way you feel abortion is because, if that were not the case, then the other unmitigated violence or evil could just as easily serve to organize all of your solidarities and antipathies and, as a consequence, abortion would risk becoming permissible in many contexts, alongside many other secondary forms of violence. If you found a leader to be against unmitigated evil X, but whose support for other issues included support for abortion, then you would have to give your support to this leader solely because unmitigated evil X commands your attention overwhelmingly. And that, I think, is why I believe this single-issue approach to politics is untenable: because, in its arbitrary quest to eradicate a single form of violence, it is destined to support or show indifference towards multiple other forms of violence. That is the point I would most like you to reflect on; and this point, I insist, does not relate only to abortion or to abortion directly, in a substantive way, since it would apply, as well, to any other single issue that one would so embrace.