Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Apple Argument Against Abortion

by Peter Kreeft

I doubt there are many readers here who are pro-choice. Why, then, do I write an argument against abortion? Why preach to the choir?

Preaching to the choir is a legitimate enterprise. Scripture calls it "edification," or "building up." It is what priests, ministers, rabbis, and mullahs try to do once every week. We all need to clean and improve our apologetic weapons periodically; and this argument is the most effective one I know for actual use in dialogue with intelligent pro-choicers. I will be as upfront as possible.

I will try to prove the simple, common-sensical reasonableness of the pro-life case by a sort of Socratic logic. My conclusion is that Roe v. Wade must be overturned, and my fundamental reason for this is not only because of what abortion is but because we all know what abortion is.

This is obviously a controversial conclusion, and initially unacceptable to all pro-choicers. So, my starting point must be noncontroversial. It is this: We know what an apple is. I will try to persuade you that if we know what an apple is, Roe v. Wade must be overthrown, and that if you want to defend Roe, you will probably want to deny that we know what an apple is.

1. We Know What an Apple Is

Our first principle should be as undeniable as possible, for arguments usually go back to their first principles. If we find our first premise to be a stone wall that cannot be knocked down when we back up against it, our argument will be strong. Tradition states and common sense dictates our premise that we know what an apple is. Almost no one doubted this, until quite recently. Even now, only philosophers, scholars, "experts," media mavens, professors, journalists, and mind-molders dare to claim that we do not know what an apple is.

2. We Really Know What an Apple Really Is

From the premise that "we know what an apple is," I move to a second principle that is only an explication of the meaning of the first: that we really know what an apple really is. If this is denied, our first principle is refuted. It becomes, "We know, but not really, what an apple is, but not really." Step 2 says only, "Let us not 'nuance' Step 1 out of existence!"

3. We Really Know What Some Things Really Are

From Step 2, I deduce the third principle, also as an immediate logical corollary, that we really know what some things (other things than apples) really are. This follows if we only add the minor premise that an apple is another thing.

This third principle, of course, is the repudiation of skepticism. The secret has been out since Socrates that skepticism is logically self-contradictory. To say "I do not know" is to say "I know I do not know." Socrates's wisdom was not skepticism. He was not the only man in the world who knew that he did not know. He had knowledge; he did not claim to have wisdom. He knew he was not wise. That is a wholly different affair and is not self-contradictory. All forms of skepticism are logically self-contradictory, no matter the nuance.

All talk about rights, about right and wrong, about justice, presupposes this principle that we really know what some things really are. We cannot argue about anything at all -- anything real, as distinct from arguing about arguing, and about words, and attitudes -- unless we accept this principle. We can talk about feelings without it, but we cannot talk about justice. We can have a reign of feelings -- or a reign of terror -- without it, but we cannot have a reign of law.

4. We Know What Human Beings Are

Our fourth principle is that we know what we are. If we know what an apple is, surely we know what a human being is. For we aren't apples; we don't live as apples, we don't feel what apples feel (if anything). We don't experience the existence or growth or life of apples, yet we know what apples are. A fortiori, we know what we are, for we have "inside information," privileged information, more and better information.

We obviously do not have total, or even adequate, knowledge of ourselves, or of apples, or (if we listen to Aquinas) of even a flea. There is obviously more mystery in a human than in an apple, but there is also more knowledge. I repeat this point because I know it is often not understood: To claim that "we know what we are" is not to claim that we know all that we are, or even that we know adequately or completely or with full understanding anything at all of what we are. We are a living mystery, but we also know much of this mystery. Knowledge and mystery are no more incompatible than eating and hungering for more.

5. We Have Human Rights Because We Are Human

The fifth principle is the indispensable, common-sensical basis for human rights: We have human rights because we are human beings.

We have not yet said what human beings are (e.g., do we have souls?), or what human rights are (e.g., do we have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"?), only the simple point that we have whatever human rights we have because we are whatever it is that makes us human.

This certainly sounds innocent enough, but it implies a general principle. Let's call that our sixth principle.

6. Morality Is Based on Metaphysics

Metaphysics means simply philosophizing about reality. The sixth principle means that rights depend on reality, and our knowledge of rights depends on our knowledge of reality.

By this point in our argument, some are probably feeling impatient. These impatient ones are common-sensical people, uncorrupted by the chattering classes. They will say, "Of course. We know all this. Get on with it. Get to the controversial stuff." Ah, but I suspect we began with the controversial stuff. For not all are impatient; others are uneasy. "Too simplistic," "not nuanced," "a complex issue" -- do these phrases leap to mind as shields to protect you from the spear that you know is coming at the end of the argument?

The principle that morality depends on metaphysics means that rights depend on reality, or what is right depends on what is. Even if you say you are skeptical of metaphysics, we all do use the principle in moral or legal arguments. For instance, in the current debate about "animal rights," some of us think that animals do have rights and some of us think they don't, but we all agree that if they do have rights, they have animal rights, not human rights or plant rights, because they are animals, not humans or plants. For instance, a dog doesn't have the right to vote, as humans do, because dogs are not rational, as humans are. But a dog probably does have a right not to be tortured. Why? Because of what a dog is, and because we really know a little bit about what a dog really is: We really know that a dog feels pain and a tree doesn't. Dogs have feelings, unlike trees, and dogs don't have reason, like humans; that's why it's wrong to break a limb off a dog but it's not wrong to break a limb off a tree, and that's also why dogs don't have the right to vote but humans do.

7. Moral Arguments Presuppose Metaphysical Principles

The main reason people deny that morality must (or even can) be based on metaphysics is that they say we don't really know what reality is, we only have opinions. They point out, correctly, that we are less agreed about morality than science or everyday practical facts. We don't differ about whether the sun is a planet or whether we need to eat to live, but we do differ about things like abortion, capital punishment, and animal rights.

But the very fact that we argue about it -- a fact the skeptic points to as a reason for skepticism -- is a refutation of skepticism. We don't argue about how we feel, about subjective things. You never hear an argument like this: "I feel great." "No, I feel terrible."

For instance, both pro-lifers and pro-choicers usually agree that it's wrong to kill innocent persons against their will and it's not wrong to kill parts of persons, like cancer cells. And both the proponents and opponents of capital punishment usually agree that human life is of great value; that's why the proponent wants to protect the life of the innocent by executing murderers and why the opponent wants to protect the life even of the murderer. They radically disagree about how to apply the principle that human life is valuable, but they both assume and appeal to that same principle.


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