Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for October 25th, 2020

The Sri Lankan parliament has just committed hara-kiri by giving powers to the President that make parliament itself irrelevant.

Such absurd acts of collective self-destruction seem to be rife all over the world. We are often our own worst enemies.

Around this time, every four years, I commiserate with my American friends over the pitiful choice they face when electing a President. One has to belong to the tiny class of the super-rich to be nominated by either party. Moreover, this is the only country I know of where a candidate who gets as many as three million votes less than his rival wins the election. Al Gore suffered the same fate when George Bush, Jr., was elected in 2000. What was a revolutionary Constitution in the 1780s has proved to be easily corruptible and unjust. Unsurprisingly, U.S Presidential elections have been gleefully held up by despots around the world as excuses for their own anti-democratic practices.

Let me now digress a bit before returning to the elections.

The eminent political thinker John Rawls (1921-2002) once proposed, controversially, that democratic civility requires us all to deliberate as citizens in a neutral, universal tongue. We are best guided, according to Rawls, by a “political conception of justice” that we can all endorse and by what he called a “public reason”, meaning that we only present concepts and arguments that other “reasonable” citizens find intelligible (even if they may disagree). If we try to introduce reasons grounded in our own worldviews and moral traditions (“comprehensive doctrines”) parts of these will not be translatable into reasons which people who do not share these worldviews and these traditions can grasp.

Clearly, since decisions about law or public policy in a pluralist, democratic polity have to command the consent of people holding a wide range of worldviews, merely quoting a particular religious authority- whether the Bible or the Qur’an or the Pope- will not be meaningful to others. But, then, nor will quoting Plato or Marx or Kant or, ironically, the Rawlsian form of political liberalism.

Rawls’ proposal was shot down from numerous quarters, including other liberal philosophers who pointed out its basically illiberal nature. It seemed to place too high a premium on harmony, and to aspire to an immunity from  contradiction and challenge. Much to his credit, Rawls, with characteristic humility, responded to his critics by diluting and amending his “public reason” proposal until his death. But that is another story and not the main point of this particular post.

What interests me is that Rawls was heavily influenced towards his original view by the heated debates over abortion following the Roe vs Wade case of 1973. He assumed that the argument against abortion was based on religious tradition. That may have been the case with Christian fundamentalist groups who simply quoted the Bible at others (although, interestingly, there is no solitary biblical text that can be used legitimately to outlaw abortion).

But, the moral argument against abortion is based on the simple facts of human embryology coupled with a commitment to the universality of human rights. And, in Western liberal societies that embrace whole-heartedly both science and human rights discourse, this is, in fact, a classic case of a “public reason” argument! It is why there are many atheists, too, who are opposed to abortion. (https://www.prolifehumanists.org/secular-case-against-abortion/)

The vast majority of us- all those who were not the products of monozygotic twinning (i.e., twinning from a single fertilized egg) – began our lives at conception. From a scientific point of view, there is no doubt at all concerning what the early embryo is. The early human embryo is not a “potential” human being, or a “pre” human being, but a new human being with a unique human genotype- the same self-directing human organism as the later child and adult. The changes from embryo to fetus to infant to adolescent to adult are simply changes in degrees of natural development.

Where moral reasoning enters is in the following argument. If we accept that human beings are intrinsically valuable and deserving of full moral respect by virtue of what they are as humans (as opposed to what they either possess or achieve), does it not follow that they are intrinsically valuable from the point at which they come into being?

Paradoxically, it is the “pro-choice” position that violates the standards of public reason. A “right to choose” is only meaningful if we specify what we are in fact choosing. And human beings have no “right” to choose who should live and who should die. We can only take the life of another human being in self-defence or to protect another life from murder.

Moreover, in patriarchal societies, aren’t women’s choices often controlled by men? Why, then, should a woman’s choice be the only consideration when it comes to abortion, as argued by extreme feminists? (I say “extreme”- for want of a better word- because not all feminists agree with this view and it does not follow logically from feminist principles).

And, what if a mother chose to abort a female baby because males are more acceptable in her society? This is indeed the case in India, and Indian law now criminalises what it labels “female feticide”. This is, however, morally incoherent.  The worth of the unborn child lies no longer in her humanity but in her sex. Such a law discriminates against the unborn male child, assuming it to be less than fully human while the female child is intrinsically valuable.

Note: My arguments here have to do with the moral case against abortion. I accept that the legal issue is more complicated as it involves personal and social situations which vary from country to country and in which we have to balance the rights of the unborn child with other considerations. Although we may disagree about the legal solution (and I have dealt with this elsewhere), surely the moral worth of the unborn child can never be ignored or disputed by Rawls’ “reasonable” citizens. Abortion can also never be a “quick fix” that replaces sex education, access to reliable contraception, holding men accountable for pregnancies and providing economic help and psychological counselling to pregnant women who need them.

Now let’s return to the U.S elections next week. I cannot understand how any sensible person can want four more years of Trump/Pence. Admittedly, Biden is a pillar of the establishment and undistinguished as a politician despite many years in politics. Harris is an obvious token woman/minority figure.

But, fundamentalist Christians who are supporting Trump on the single-issue of restricting abortion (not global warming, racism, poverty, gun violence and the host of other national and global challenges) are doomed to be disappointed. They don’t appear to have learned from the way Republican candidates, from Reagan to Bush Jr., all claimed to be “born-again” around about election time and cynically manipulated the religious right with promises about abortion that they never kept.

To such sincere but utterly misguided folk, I say: Would it not be more reasonable to vote for a President who will work to restore civility and decency to American public life and with whom one can then engage in rational debate on abortion and every other moral question?


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