The President’s reckless rhetoric

 […] This is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams.

–From the Statement by the President on Roe v. Wade Anniversary, January 22, 2014

So end President Obama’s remarks about Roe v. Wade and his administration’s official stance on abortion, released on the 41st anniversary of the decision.  Unfortunately, the President’s remarks are deeply problematic, for reasons he probably didn’t intend.

The problem lies with the rhetoric: it is broad.  Too broad.  Much too broad.  So broad that an aircraft carrier can be parallel parked in the gap it leaves.  The logic of the statement is quite simple: abortion is a good thing because it helps women maintain equal footing and allows them to pursue their goals.  What could possibly be wrong with such a statement?

In his article for the Christian Research Journal, bioethicist Scott Klusendorf quotes several ethicists who defend the position that newborns and infants may be terminated on the basis of disability or a simple lack of development, or simply because they are not considered persons who have human rights until a given point after birth.  Klusendorf quotes Singer:

“Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

Consider also, from his textbook Practical Ethics:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.

To be fair, Singer says that in most cases infanticide may be morally wrong–but that claim seems dubious in light of his much earlier claim about the moral worth of the lives of newborns.  But Singer is not alone.  Other ethicists have echoed Singer and have gone farther than him.  Klusendorf quotes Michael Tooley from 1972, the year before Roe, and draws the logical conclusion:

“[A human being] possess[es] a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.”  Infants do not qualify.

Klusendorf’s discussion of another ethicist’s comments deserve attention as well.

More recently, American University philosophy professor Jeffrey Reiman has asserted that unlike mature human beings, infants do not “possess in their own right a property that makes it wrong to kill them.” He explicitly holds that infants are not persons with a right to life and that “there will be permissible exceptions to the rule against killing infants that will not apply to the rule against killing adults and children.”

So with these philosophers in mind, let’s revisit the President’s remarks.  The logic is unambiguous: if abortion can allow a woman to achieve her goals, it should be permissible.  But the President’s rhetoric is careless: these ethicists have given reasons why they think infanticide should be permissible, and all of them are grounded in the same defense of abortion that Obama has appealed to.

Which raises some uncomfortable questions for President Obama.  What reasons can he give for his stated defense of abortion that do not equally apply to Singers,’ Tooley’s, and Reiman’s defenses of infanticide?  If abortion–the act of ending a human life–is acceptable at one stage based upon the physical attributes of the unborn, as far as the ambitions of women or families are concerned, then Singer’s point that the newly born are developmentally similar to the unborn means that Singer and company can (and has)  use that very same rhetoric in the defense of infanticide on the basis that it will allow for the very same goals and opportunities to be pursued.

Which is surely not what the President meant to say, but the logic of his statement is unavoidable.  Why not follow Singer, Tooley, and others in their arguments about abortion and infanticide?  Would not more goals and ambitions be pursued by allowing infanticide?  Surely the good would outweigh the bad in such a scenario.  If size, location, or degrees of dependency or development can be appealed to to terminate a human being so that another can achieve a particular objective, why not grant more achievement?

But Singer is right in pointing out that newborns are developmentally similar to their unborn counterparts, and there is something of a circular firing squad within pro-choice philosophy.  To quote Christopher Kaczor, “Arguments against infanticide often apply equally well to abortion while arguments in favor of abortion often apply equally well to infanticide (The Ethics of Abortion, p. 41).”

And it is into this disturbing philosophical tempest that the President deploys his remarks.  Surely President Obama does not mean to allow such an application of his statement, but his sentiments are not used by defenders of abortion alone.  When his rhetoric can be used–and is used–by those defending infanticide, that rhetoric needs to be critically examined.

Phony Christians and phony outrage

Over the weekend a news show at MSNBC made some waves by making some bold claims regarding opposition to Obamacare by conservative Christians or politicians who say they are Christians.  Ted Cruz in particular was singled out for his comments about defunding ACA and also for his overtly Christian rhetoric.

The Blaze noticed the comments by Ed Schultz and promptly publicized them.

To quote from the Blaze piece:

“This is good for America and I won’t let them lie,” Schultz said. “They’re phony Christians. Phony Christians when they say that they are Christian but then they want to take away from their next door neighbor. They don’t want to be their brother’s keeper.”

“A growing number of right wing Christians are coming out day after day as a Christian,” he continued. “I think I have the right to expose their hypocrisy and call them out for all the things they are saying wrong and how misguided they are.”


“It is very simple. If ObamaCare is repealed, Americans will die. Children of God will die,” he said.

They are, of course, standard fare for politics and yet another common salvo against conservatives: A few weeks ago, President Obama said that “The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have health care,” among other things, and this is used to great effect in attack ads during every election.  Rhetorically, they have great strength, and are a reliable way to put an opponent on the defensive in a hurry without allowing much time or room to recover.  No one wants to have to answer the question of why they want others to suffer and die for seemingly insignificant reasons.  And it’s very easy to say the wrong thing trying to answer it.  Which is why we see it so much, and not just by liberals but by conservatives as well.  In the video segment linked by The Blaze, Cruz himself has difficulty answering a point-blank question of why he wants to take peoples’ health care away.

But Schultz’ comments about Christians who oppose Obamacare deserves comment first.  For starters, it begs all sorts of questions: Are Christians obligated to endorse anything that contains even the slightest bit of good?  Is the Golden Rule the Gospel?  Can a Christian be right about the Gospel and wrong about other things and still be a genuine Christian?   Is Ed Schultz a phony Christian himself for using a not-particularly-unique-to-Christianity-reason to call others phony?  (Answer: no.)

To put these questions (and Schultz’ comments) in perspective, we will reverse the situation.  Suppose that Ted Cruz states that only “phony Christians” oppose restrictions for abortion on demand.  (Hint: it would be Thunderdome.) Would Cruz be correct in saying that?  Of course not.  It would be as offensive as it is foolish.  And such is the case with Schultz’s comments.

On that note: What actually makes someone a Christian?  True, Jesus did command us to care for the poor, and the OT prophets spent an awful lot of time blasting the elite of Israel for their negligence in justice and caring for the poor even then, but is that what makes someone a Christian?   Last I checked, the Gospel has a little something to do with a Jewish preacher who was crucified for sedition and who, as his followers claimed, rose from the dead and promised to come again.  “Caring for others” is hardly a uniquely Christian trait, and is not what got Jesus crucified.

Now on to his most provocative claim: the claim that these “phony” Christians are just fine with, if not approving of, letting people die needlessly.  Or to put it as Obama did, conservatives are willing to let people slide straight into the grave because of some hidebound evidence-proof ideology.

But they have something in common that allows them to be easily answered.  And it’s time for this tactic to be neutralized.  Here’s how and why.

These comments make the mistake of confusing intention with foresight.  This is typically a distinction that only gets discussed in ethical situations that involve the abortion debate, but they are applicable here.  Furthermore, there is a difference between intrinsic evil and contingent evil at work here that blunts the attacks by Schultz and Obama.

If intention refers to the desire of a moral agent to bring something about, foresight is the ability to anticipate what might happen if a given event occurs.  Intrinsic evil is an act that is always wrong; it always (and intentionally) deprives someone of an inalienable good; a contingent evil is one that may result a deprivation of good that is not the intent of an act.  (One example used of a contingent evil is civilian casualties in a just war.  The casualties are foreseen as possible, but they are not intended and are not the goal of a just war.)  In this particular case, Schultz and Obama have switched the two, and accused their opponents of intending an outcome that is foreseen, and treating a contingent evil as though it were an intrinsic evil.

So revisiting the Schultz comments, what he has done is take a foreseen outcome and accused some Christians of making that the intended outcome, which is effectively a strawman attack.  It is true that some would die if Obamacare is repealed than if it were left in place, but these deaths are not the intent of those who oppose Obamacare.  And defending the defunding and repeal of Obamacare is much easier after distinguishing between intent and foresight, intrinsic and contingent evil.  Furthermore, it makes the attacks look unnecessarily harsh and foolish.

And Obama’s remarks about his Republican opponents fare no better: he has taken a foreseen consequence and accused the Republicans of making it their intended consequence.  It also helps that he has a willing media to faithfully repeat this attack.  And it also really helps that the Republicans who were the targets of these remarks are heretofore unable to effectively respond to them.

This distinction applies to other issues as well, particularly the marriage debate.  Recently I was asked why I wanted gay people to be unhappy.  But upon closer inspection, this too confuses intention with foresight: unhappiness is foreseen, but not intended, in saying traditional marriage has no other form than traditional marriage.  It might make some unhappy, but that is a foreseen consequence and not the intended consequence (which is stable, mother-father families).  Moreover, the usual moral framework is still in play: the moral status of homosexual acts, moral equivalence or neutrality, etc.  But knowing how to defuse a terribly intimidating attack may change how marriage is discussed, or at least remove some of the hostility–on both sides.  Defenders of traditional marriage use bad arguments too that can be answered using this distinction.

Of course, there is more wrong with Schultz’ remarks than just this confusion of intent and foresight.  Specifically, that the Christians who oppose Obamacare maintain their opposition to it on the grounds that intended, intrinsically evil acts are both allowed and mandated: the abortion mandate, the contraception mandate (as regards religious liberties), the death panels that suddenly don’t seem so outlandish, etc.  Yet Schultz ignores these, and simply accuses others of gross moral turpitude.  And it isn’t like the Republicans or the Christians Schultz accuses simply prefer no alternative to Obamacare other than death and destruction.  The Republican opponents of Obama maintain (and it should be noted this is up for debate) that the market is a better judge than government.  The Christian opponents of Obamacare maintain that government is not a good substitute for the church when it comes to charity, and for that reason oppose this particular ‘separation of church and state.’  And both typically think that government is not the only appropriate answer to human suffering.  Simply to say that Obamacare needs to be repealed is not to say that there should be no health care or charity at all.

So for Schultz, Obama, and others to malign their opponents with accusations of intent to harm, this amounts to slander.  An easily answerable slander at that.