In reading Steven Pinker’s masterful The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, one of the significant insights I gleaned was that the lion’s share of human violence is carried out by those who believe they are morally or ideologically justified in their actions. More homicides are committed out of a sense of vigilante justice and offended moral sensibilities (e.g., retribution for adultery committed with one’s spouse) than for personal gain (e.g., burglary). Large-scale genocides are typically committed by those who believe in the Utopian righteousness of their cause, whether the cause is communism, Nazism, or religion. Fully a third of the population of Germany was destroyed in the Catholic-Protestant Thirty Years War. As a proportion of the current population of Germany (82 million), that would have corresponded to 27 million deaths in today’s Germany alone. And that was before the advent of military aircraft, automatic weapons, or gas chambers! Closer to (my American) home, we could add to the list the American settlers’ notion of Manifest Destiny that led to the displacement and slaughter of countless Native Americans or the Southern churches’ appeal to scripture to justify slavery, segregation, and the prohibition of mixed-race marriage.
The rub is that we all hold to one or more ideologies, and we all believe in the rightness of our ideology, but we almost never recognize the potential or real harm our beliefs entail. It’s easy to spot the harm in others’ ideologies while not even realizing we are beholden to our own harmful (but in our minds, righteous) stances: ”Ideology, like halitosis … is what the other person has” (Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: An Introduction. New York: Verso, p. 2).
Ideologically-based harm arises when adherence to the ideology is given priority over the happiness and well being of sentient beings in this world. Thus the Inquisition was more concerned with the upholding of correct doctrine (and the drive to avert the eternal damnation of souls in the hereafter) than it was with the temporal suffering of those who were punished for their heresies. Another example of religious ideology trumping the well being of others can be found in Deuteronomy 13:6-11:
If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.
Now, perhaps the Catholic Inquisition (and its Protestant counterparts) had a good point: maybe the torturing or execution of a few poor heretical souls would result in a net reduction of suffering by setting an example to prevent a greater number of individuals from falling into heresy and subjecting themselves to eternal torment. Under this logic, any suffering in this life, no matter how intense or how widespread, can compare to the suffering of even a single eternally damned soul, so anything on earth can be justified in an effort to save at least one soul. But if any of the assumptions (e.g., the reality of eternal damnation or the effectiveness of torture in averting it) that were used to justify the practices of the Inquisition were mistaken, then the torture of heretics stands as a prime example of net harm driven by a well-meaning, righteous ideology.
Fast forward to this week in American politics and culture. Four hot-button topics are once again in the fore of our national dialogue: homosexuality, abortion, immigration, and voting rights. With plenty of ideology on all sides, principles often trump the well being of sentient beings in discussions surrounding these issues. Given that we are all ideologically motivated and we don’t often recognize our ideologies or the potential harm they can incur, it is in the interest of society for us all to examine critically the potential and real effects of what we believe and promote. Unfortunately it’s not easy for us who are already to committed do an ideology to recognize its harmful aspects.
If there is solid evidence that the widespread termination of a day-old fertilized zygote (e.g., through the drug Plan B) is likely to lead society down the slippery slope toward killing or harming of sentient beings that form a part of society, then the pro-choice crowd is guilty of contributing to the net suffering of sentient beings, and the pro-life crowd has reason to oppose such abortions. However, I am not aware of any evidence pointing in that direction; in fact homicide rates have declined significantly in America in recent decades, despite the Roe v. Wade decision.
If there is solid evidence that the abortion of a 28-week unborn baby incurs considerable conscious suffering on the part of the baby (see this article) , and if the pro-choice crowd presses to allow babies at that stage to be aborted, then the pro-choice crowd could be guilty of allowing its ideology (under the guise of women’s choice) to add to the net suffering of sentient beings. That said, if the pro-life crowd objects to 28-week (or even 20-week) abortions on the grounds that they incur fetal pain, but if they don’t show any concern for the suffering of adult cattle or poultry raised and slaughtered for their own gustatory pleasure, then the appeal to fetal pain is disingenuous, a smoke screen. An adult cow is far more social, more conscious of its living conditions and capable of experiencing pain than a 28-week-old human fetus.
I am tired of how the abortion debate is normally framed. Pro-choicers so often appeal to terms like “the right to privacy,” “the fourteenth amendment, ” “the right for a woman not to be told what to do with her own body,” etc. Sorry, pro-choicers, these terms and arguments based on them are worse than useless: they only serve to underscore what a tin ear you have in the face of the single most powerful argument of the pro-lifers, namely, that a fertilized egg is a human, and the taking of human life (especially for the sake of convenience) is murder. The fact is that, for pro-lifers, innocent human life is sacred, and there can be no justification for taking it. And pro-lifers are correct in asserting that a fertilized egg is at least in some sense human, independently bearing 46 chromosomes with the same complement of DNA shared by every member of our species, whether born an unborn. Saying that a woman has a right to do as she pleases “with her own body” is risible when she’s bearing a late-term fetus; if the fetus has a head, brain, arms, legs, heart, blood, etc., and can feel pain or pleasure, then there’s a baby in there, and it’s not just the mother’s body!
Conversely, it’s risible for pro-lifers to assert that a day-old zygote is a “person.” How is a single cell or a 16-cell blastocyst a person in any recognizable sense of the word? It’s no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree, even if the incipient form shares the same DNA as the adult form. It seems to me that pro-lifers in general recognize this, even if they will not admit it. As evidence of this, an estimated two thirds of all fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, yet I am not aware of any concerted, serious effort on the part of pro-lifers to stem the tragedy of spontaneous abortions that kill more humans than all other causes combined–including intentional abortions. By their lack of concern for these two thirds of humans that die in the womb, and by their greater concern for children and adults suffering from a variety of diseases, pro-lifers demonstrate that they really do place more value on the life of a born human than on the life of a day-old zygote.
I’m asking proponents of both sides of the abortion debate to consider dropping their ideological presuppositions. I want pro-choicers to be certain that abortion will not lead to a net increase in suffering, and I want pro-lifers to do the same. Will abortions lead to the cheapening and killing of sentient human life? Will allowing abortions deprive childless couples of the joy of child rearing? Will preventing abortions lead to emotional and economic suffering on the part of mothers who are forced to bring their babies to term? What if the baby is severely deformed? How will this affect the entire lives of the child and her parents? Even if the baby is not deformed, is it destined to live a life of neglect and poverty if the mother can’t bring herself to give it up for adoption? If the baby is given up for adoption with the result that more babies are brought into the world, how does that affect society and the environment and our planet, which has seen the human population explode in geometrical progression in recent centuries? Is there a limit to the carrying capacity of our planet while retaining a reasonable amount of biodiversity, or can we continue to double, quadruple, and multiply by 8, 16, 32, 64, or 128 times the current population for generations to come?
When it comes to homosexuality, my concern isn’t my admitted distaste for the idea of a man inserting his penis into the anus of another man. My concern is whether the views I hold and the policies I promote lead to greater or lesser pain on the part of sentient beings. If children reared in homosexual unions are significantly worse off than those reared in heterosexual (or single-parent) unions, then that would come into play in deciding whether endorsing child rearing in a homosexual environment is in the best interest of society. If studies show that children reared in a homosexual marriage are better off than those reared in a mere homosexual union, then that serves as a argument for advocating gay marriage. If the practice of homosexuality (using responsible protections) has no demonstrable ill effects on society at large, then that serves as an argument against proscribing it. Conversely, if proscribing homosexuality leads to greater a greater rate of bullying, depression, or suicide for those who are gay (whether by nature or by choice, it matters not at all), then those who would proscribe it (out of a sense of religious or personal conviction) are contributing to the net pain and suffering of humanity. In other words, their ideology is the opposite of righteousness.
Am I driven by ideology? Certainly so: for one, I want to see a reduction in the net amount of suffering on the part of sentient beings. I do have other beliefs beyond that, but it seems like a good starting point for us all.