Western Moral Absolutism

The abortion debate, for me, epitomises the sterility of western rhetoric when it comes to political discourse.

The foetus is a human being in potentia, with all the possibilities that entails in terms of human life and experience. The termination of a pregnancy is the ending of those possibilities, the destruction of that potential.

This is, clearly, morally repugnant.

The mother’s body must be used to carry the foetus to term. She will then be responsible for that human being’s existence and for acquitting herself well on that person’s behalf. The imposition of that responsibility, the usurpation of her body, is what results from denying her abortion rights.

This is, clearly, morally repugnant.

Were any rational human being to be presented with either of these in isolation, the course of action would be universally approved. Abortion would be banned, or it would be permitted. The problem is, of course, that these rights are in contention. You cannot support one without denying the other.

What makes the abortion debate sterile in terms of western political discourse is the way in which either side of the debate simply talks past the other, downplaying the other’s stance, even negating it altogether as non-existent in any real sense, while holding up their own side of the debate as absolute.

In other words, there is no genuine dialectic.

Clearly there are arguments on both sides. If there were no argument for women’s rights, then if a man were so desirous of having a child by a particular woman he could kidnap her, lock her up, rape her repeatedly until she became pregnant and well, job done. Even if we punish the man, the child must still be brought to term and he’s got what he wanted. On the other hand, if the unborn child is unworthy of consideration, then a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy should be able to have the foetus removed and chucked in the bin.

I blame Plato.

He was strongly opposed to the Sophists and, on one level, quite rightly so. Sophistry, at its inception, was the idea of understanding either side of a debate, being able to put either side of a debate in order to provide fertile territory of discussion with all opinions weighed in the balance and given due deference.

Unfortunately, this was bastardised and became – for some of the practitioners of Sophistry in the mainstream in ancient Athens – an extreme form of moral relativism. All points of view were relative to the individual expressing them, and thus of equal validity. By this argument Hitler, for example, could not be deemed to have been wrong.

Worse, the way in which we use the term ‘sophistry’ today in the wake of Plato, the aim of some Sophists was merely to teach individuals how to win arguments through the clever use of words. One example Plato gives is the question “Is education for the wise or for the ignorant?” Argue one way, and hey presto! You’re an idiot. Argue the other way and hey presto! You’re still an idiot. The bottom line, though, is it is an abuse of rhetoric, and the question itself has no validity in considering any worthwhile approach to education.

Unfortunately for us, we seem to have taken on board Plato’s objections to Sophistry to such an extent that we’ve thrown out the baby – seeing both sides of the argument – with the bath water. At the same time, we’ve failed to adopt the Socratic argument Plato puts forward which is, in its own way, an echo of the origins of Sophistry at its best; that there is precious little we ‘know’, and the best thing we can do is expand out our understanding through dialogue with those who oppose us in order to make a relatively more informed decision about what is right, what is wrong.

The legacy of Plato, then, for western civilisation, is moral absolutism in our rejection of Sophistry coupled with our failure to adopt the Socratic method Plato would have had us put in its place.


4 thoughts on “Western Moral Absolutism

  1. All the hubbub about abortion masks the real issue, which is this: Why, in the 21st Century, would any young (or old) woman even need an abortion? Birth control is widely available and socially acceptable. The knowledge that sex can create human life is pretty well known; it’s resulted in human life a few billion times now. How and why are we failing these young women?

    • People make mistakes, particularly in the sexual arena. Particularly when they’re young. Youthful inexperience and strong new desires make for a potent mix.

      The best thing we can do for young people is to make sure they are properly educated on the subject and have ready access to all reasonable forms of contraception, if necessary without parental consent. (Not all parents are understanding about this, and it’s likely to be the children of such parents who are amongst those most at risk).

      Even then, with the best will in the world, the best provisions in place, mistakes will continue to be made. Like I said, it’s a potent mix.

  2. Don’t blame Plato. Blame Jesus. In the West, it’s primarily the religious that prioritize the potential life of a possible person over the actual life of an extant person. The problem isn’t that it’s moral absolutism on both sides. The problem is one side believes the value of things that might be is equal (and in some cases superior to) to the value of things that are.

    • Only here I disagree, for the reasons as stated. I cannot airily wave away a human being in potentia in that fashion. To take a far, far less emotive example, imagine that we were to discover the first scene of a Shakespeare play he died before he could complete, or even a notebook in which the work was sketched out. Would we not feel regret that he died before he could write the work and bring it through to completion? If we can feel that over a play in potentia, then I make no apologies for feeling that same idea would apply to a human being in potentia.

      Abortion is rarely an easy thing for a woman. Most – those I’ve talked with, all but one – are acutely aware of the ‘what might have been’ factor, and don’t regard it as, say, no more than an operation to remove a cyst.

      We can discuss it philosophically and in the cold light of reason until the cows come home, and in doing so we can, no doubt, negate the concern altogether. Trouble is, we can do that for human beings who are alive as well if we work at it hard enough.

      You may argue that this idea is pure sentimentality. I would argue that such sentimentality is crucial to us as human beings. Stray too far from it, and nothing matters. The question is, how far do we stray? I cannot, myself, stray so far as to discount that potential lost.

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