Sunday, November 6, 2022

Must Christians Oppose Abortion?

Protest at the U.S. Supreme Court 2022

Guest post by Dr. John Messerly, author of the blog Reason and Meaning: Philosophical Reflections on Life, Death, and the Meaning of Life.  Printed here with permission.

Must Christians Oppose Abortions?
 Most professional philosophers do not find abortion morally problematic. Still, many Christians believe they must oppose abortion on religious grounds. But must they? Does such opposition really derive from Christian Scripture or church tradition? 

Religious scriptures are problematic for multiple reasons. Typically they survived as oral traditions before being written down, have been translated multiple times, and are open to multiple interpretations. If you think that stories remained unchanged as they are handed down over time, that translations are precise, or that interpretation is straightforward, then you are mistaken. Moreover, Christian scripture doesn’t discuss most contemporary moral issues. For example, consider the Bible's silence about moral issues surrounding topics such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, climate change, and more. 

Furthermore, the issue of abortion doesn’t arise in the Christian scriptures except tangentially. There are a few Biblical passages quoted by conservatives to support the anti-abortion position, the most well-known is in Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” But, as anyone who has examined this passage knows, the sanctity of fetal life isn’t being discussed here. Rather, Jeremiah is asserting his authority as a prophet. 

Many other Biblical passages point to the more liberal view of abortion. Three times in the Bible (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20–21) the death penalty is recommended for women who have sex out-of-wedlock, even though killing the women would kill their fetuses. In Exodus 21 God prescribes death as the penalty for murder, whereas the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry is only a fine. In the Old Testament, the fetus doesn’t seem to have personhood status, and the New Testament says nothing about abortion at all. There simply isn’t a strong scriptural tradition in Christianity against abortion.

And Church tradition is ambiguous concerning abortion as the history of the Catholic view shows. In the 13th century, the philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the soul enters the body when the zygote has a human shape. This position was officially accepted by the church at the Council of Vienne in 1312. Given what we now know about fetal development---that embryos start out as a cluster of cells and human form comes later---if the Catholic Church’s position remained consistent with the views of Aquinas, they should say that the soul doesn’t enter the zygote for at least a few months after conception. However, other Christian theologians would later argue that the soul enters the body a few days after conception, although we don’t exactly know why they believed this. (Note that there really is no moment of conception---it is about a 48-hour process.) Put simply, Church tradition doesn't speak unequivocally about when souls enter newly fertilized eggs. 

So the anti-abortion position doesn’t clearly follow from either Christian scripture or church tradition. Instead, people already have moral views, and they then look to their religion for support. In other words, moral convictions aren’t usually derived from scripture or church tradition so much as superimposed on them. (For example, American Christians used the Bible to both support and oppose slavery.) But even if the pro-life position did follow from a religious tradition, that would only be relevant for religious believers. For the rest of us, and for many religious believers too, the best way to adjudicate our disputes without resorting to violence is to conscientiously examine the arguments for and against moral propositions by shining the light of reason upon them. Having done this the majority of ethicists have concluded that abortion isn’t generally morally problematic.

It also clearly follows that religious believers have no right to impose their views upon the rest of us. In a morally pluralistic society, informed by the ethos of the Enlightenment, we should reject theocracy. We ought to allow people to follow their conscience in moral matters—you can drink alcohol—as long as others aren’t harmed—you shouldn’t drink and drive. In the philosophy of law, this is known as the harm principle. Now if rational argumentation did support the view that a zygote is a full person, then we might have reason to outlaw abortion, inasmuch as abortion would harm another person. (I say might because the fact that something is a person doesn’t necessarily imply that’s it wrong to kill it, as defenders of war, self-defense, and capital punishment claim.)

But for now, the received view among ethicists is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief that isn’t grounded in science or philosophical ethics. It also isn't grounded unequivocally in Christian scripture or Church tradition.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Woke Political Idealogy and the Suppression of Speech

The Stop WOKE Act

 Ron DeSantis

On April 22, 2022, with the approval of Governor Ron DeSantis, the Florida legislature passed a bill that makes it illegal to publicly voice three opinions (ideas, beliefs, perspectives): (1) Some ethnic groups are inherently racist, (2) A person’s status as privileged or oppressed is determined by their race or gender, and (3) Discrimination is an acceptable way to achieve diversity in education and business.


DeSantis named the new law the “stop WOKE act” because (1), (2) and (3) are part of a political ideology that is mainly spread by liberals and the far left of the Democratic Party.  According to DeSantis, a woke ideology means "an ideology of liberals and the far left."  DeSantis vigorously contends that woke ideologies are wrong (false).  He assumes (without argument) that if an ideology is wrong, then it is justifiable to suppress it.  Suppression of woke ideology is exactly what the stop WOKE act was designed to accomplish.


It should come as no surprise that the stop WOKE act was soon struck down as unconstitutional. Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said in a 44-page ruling that the act "violates the First Amendment" and is “impermissibly vague.” Judge Walker wrote that “If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case, But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents. Because, without justification, the (law) attacks ideas, not conduct, Plaintiffs are substantially likely to succeed on the merits of this lawsuit.


The First Amendment of the Constitution says "Congress [and the states] shall pass no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." Did Governor DeSantis and those in the Florida legislature who voted for the act carefully read the First Amendment? The governor and most of the Florida legislators went to law school. Did they not take a course in Constitutional Law? Did they read conservative justice Hugo Black's powerful admonition that when the Framers wrote the words "shall pass no law," they meant "no law"?  


There are two questions about the suppression of woke ideological speech that political philosophers and theorists might ask: First, how did the definition of the word "woke" change in a way that made it a negative concept suitable as a weapon to be used by one political party against another? Second, aside from the constitutional issues, are there any plausible moral reasons for not suppressing what Governor DeSantis refers to as woke ideology?


What is Woke Speech?

The word ‘woke’ has taken on a new meaning in the last decade.  People are said to be woke if they are “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)"  (Merriam-Webster). Opinions and ideas are woke if they are about important facts and issues that make people be aware and actively attentive.

It makes sense to say that the ideas and perspectives of many great philosophers were woke in their time.  Consider Socrates’ opinion that he is the wisest person in Athens because he is the only one who knows that he knows nothing (Apology);  Plato’s idea that only philosophers should rule the city-state (Republic); John Locke’s idea that an absolute monarchy is a logical impossibility (Second Treatise of Government); Rousseau’s idea that man is born free, but is everywhere in chains (The Social Contract).  Each of these ideas meets Merriam-Webster’s criteria for being woke.


Although the Merriam-Webster definition of ‘woke’ uses racial and social justice as an example of an important perspective or issue, the quoted definition says “especially issues of racial and social justice,” not “exclusively issues of racial and social justice.”  This leaves plenty of room for other ideas or perspectives (for example, issues about abortion law) because the definition says nothing about what makes any idea or perspective ‘important’ other than "awakening" lots of people. But what is important to me may not be important to you.  This is especially true about political and religious ideas.  I am woke if I embrace the idea that women should have full control over their bodies, and you are woke if you deny this. All that matters is that our ideas are important, whatever they may be.


The broad Merriam-Webster definition of "woke" has been changed recently by Florida governor Ron DeSantis.   DeSantis does not want his conservative political and cultural views to be referred to as woke.  Instead, he uses the word ‘woke’ in his speeches as a negative word that applies only to liberal and far left ideology. For DeSantis, labeling an idea or perspective as ‘woke’ is like labeling a jar of arsenic as poisonous.  And this is sufficient for him to loudly declare that woke perspectives are wrong and should be suppressed by law and public opinion.


Should Woke Speech be Suppressed?

John Stuart Mill

This is where John Stuart Mill and his famed 19th- century book On Liberty (1859) enter the debate.  If Mill was alive at the time the stop WOKE act was being debated in the Florida legislature, he would have vigorously argued that there no moral justification for making illegal the woke speech cited in (1), (2) and (3).


Mill’s argument for this is set out in chapter 2 of On Liberty (“Liberty of Thought and Expression”). Without going into a lot of detail, here is one of Mill’s arguments against the suppression of speech:

"(T)he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race …If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error."


Applying Mill’s argument to the (alleged) woke opinion #3 that “discrimination is an acceptable way to achieve diversity in education and business,” Mill’s first task would be to get the Florida legislature to admit that this opinion might be true.  Mill writes that “to deny this is to assume our own infallibility.” 


If it is admitted that no legislator is infallible, then it is possible that woke opinion #3 is true.  If it is found to be true, then those who believe that it is false will be "robbed" by the Woke act of the opportunity to “exchange error for truth.”  Although there are some politicians in our society who think it is a good thing to get others to believe a lie, this is usually good only for the politician and not for the populace at large.


On the other hand, if the woke opinion is false, then silencing the promulgation of the opinion and any debate about it ultimately robs the populace of the benefit gained from the “clearer perception and livelier impression” of the truth as it collides with the so-called erroneous woke opinion. This happens when we are forced to think critically and defend our ideas.


But none of this will happen if woke perspectives are silenced.  Instead, non-woke (conservative) political opinions will become dogma.  Mill writes that citizens will eventually forget the rational basis for the approved non-woke opinions and they will revert to “the manner of prejudice, …[thereby preventing] the growth of any real and heart-felt conviction from reason or personal experience.”


Perhaps reversion to "the manner of prejudice" about their non-woke political opinions is what Governor DeSantis and his Republican loyalists want for the people of Florida.  


Is this what Floridians want?  Is this what you want?



"What is the DeSantis Stop woke Act?"  

"Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks DeSantis Stop Woke Law.

On Liberty. 1859. John Stuart Mill.  Hackett Classics edition (1978). Hackett Publishing Company. 1978.

Understanding John Stuart Mill: The Smart Student's Guide to Utilitarianism and On Liberty (2017).  Laurence Houlgate, Kindle edition (Amazon).


























Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Philosophies of Life: Philosophy or Social Science?



Many college students come into their first philosophy class expecting that they will study and discuss varieties of what is called a philosophy of life.[1] They hope that they might find compelling advice about how they or others should live their life. They are disappointed when they find out that the question, “What are the best philosophies of life?” is not on the professor’s syllabus.


Instead of studying Kant’s categorical imperative, John Stuart Mill’s defense of the principle of utility, or John Locke’s argument for natural rights, these students would gladly prefer classroom discussions about short but intriguing philosophy of life proposals.  Here are a few examples from a single author.[2]

·        "Make improvements, not excuses.  Seek respect, not attention.”

·        “Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”

·       “Count your blessings, not your problems. Count your own blessings, not someone else's. Remember that jealousy is when you count someone else's blessings instead of your own.”

·        “The outer world is a reflection of the inner world. Other people’s perception of you is a reflection of them; your response to them is an awareness of you.”

·        “Be the reason someone smiles.  Be the reason someone feels loved and believes in the goodness in people.”


Philosophy of life proposals (recipes, advice, recommendations) such as these are usually not discussed in university philosophy classes -- probably because they do not come with supporting arguments. Most philosophy professors require that legitimate philosophical questions are those that are answered by critical reflection and discussion of the arguments that come with the proposed 'philosophy' of life. Unfortunately, most of the philosophies of life I have seen in books and around the internet are not supported at all. 


Philosophy of life proposals are best classified as popular philosophy. What goes on in the classroom is academic philosophy. If the classroom professor is doing academic philosophy, she understands that philosophy is "critical reflection on the justification of basic human beliefs analysis of basic concepts in terms of which such beliefs are expressed." [3] Hence, she will use methods that are unique to the academic philosophical investigation, starting with concept analysis.


Popular philosophy does not appear to require a method. You can say what you want, sit back, and hope that heads will nod in appreciation of your wit and wisdom. One would hope that those who make philosophy of life proposals would make some attempt to justify what they are proposing. This would involve an analysis of the concepts in terms of which the proposal is made.  For example, the first of the italicized quotes says, “Make improvements, not excuses. Seek respect, not attention.” The academic philosopher would test the justification of this belief by analyzing the concepts 'make,' ‘improvement,’ ‘excuse,’ 'respect,' and 'attention,' as a first step to finding out if the quoted belief is true or false. 


But analysis of concepts is not sufficient support for the quoted proposal because there is nothing in the meaning of the aforementioned concepts telling us that we ought "to make improvements, not excuses." In other words, concept analysis alone does not prove that the recommended behavior is something one ought or ought not to do. 


Academic philosophers employ a distinction between analytic and synthetic (empirical) propositions. An analytic proposition is one in which the truth of the proposition can be found in the meaning of the concepts in which it is expressed. A synthetic proposition is one in which its truth can be determined not by concept analysis but only by observation and experience. For example, the propositon "Bachelors are lonely" is true only if there is empirical evidence that bachelors are lonely. But loneliness is not an attribute that can be discovered by an analysis of the concept 'bachelor'.

What kind of proposition is a typical philosophy of life proposal?  Here is an example. Suppose a friend tells us that "the best life is to quit college and live the life of a hermit." Like the previous example, this is not a proposal that can be proved through conceptual analysis.  If asked to prove it, we would expect to see evidence gathered through observation and experience relevant to the life of a hermit.  But this expectation takes the question out of the realm of academic philosophy and into the realm of popular philosophy and social science.  "The best life is the life of the hermit" is a synthetic (empirical) not an analytic proposition.


A recent example of a popular ‘philosophy of life’ recommendation is Rufat Rassulov’s essay about life in Sweden. He writes in his newsletter [4] that “Sweden is one of the happiest countries in the world. Thanks to a brilliant framework -- a philosophy that keeps everything in harmony for the society.” Although Rassulov appears to accept the theory that happiness is the summum bonum (the greatest good), he writes that “the key to Sweden’s happiness is Lagom.  The word means “not too little, not too much, just perfect”.


Sound familiar?  This is what the ancient Greeks said.2,500 years ago when they promoted the Doctrine of the Mean (also known as The Golden Mean): The doctrine tells us that the best life can only be achieved by adherence to the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.[5]


This prompts an obvious question: “Not too little, not too much -- of what?”  Assulov proposes work or labor as an answer. He writes that “work in Sweden cannot interfere with the worker’s personal life, it’s a big part of being more productive and happier. The average workweek there is 30 hours, which leaves a lot of free time to enjoy with friends and family.”  


This is not academic philosophy. A life that meets the Swedish standard of Lagom is not proved through analytic reasoning. Assulov’s evidence is clearly empirical.  His reasoning is inductive and his conclusions are probable, not certain.  Assulov is doing social science, not philosophy.


Assulov’s argument begins with the suppressed premise that happiness is the end or goal of life.  He adds the unproved empirical premise that Lagom (probably) brings about more happiness to workers in civil society than other social frameworks.  He concludes that Lagom is (probably) the best philosophy of life for any civil society. Notice that no data is offered to support the crucial second premise.


One more example. In 1861, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill defined “a life of happiness” as “an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided dominance of the active over the passive and having as the foundation of the whole not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing” (Utilitarianism, ch. 2). 


Mill was not doing academic philosophy when he wrote this. His proposal for a life of happiness is empirical.  But Mill gives no data gleaned from careful observation and experience to support it. 


Notice also that Mill says nothing about The Golden Mean. As long as our active pleasures dominate over the passive, it does not matter to Mill whether we pursue an excessive amount of active pleasures.  Suppose that there are Swedish workers who love the work they are doing.  Their active pleasures are best satisfied by their work, not by social events with friends and family.  They do not want their pleasure constrained by a law that says citizens can only work 30 hours per week. 


I should point out that when Socrates told the Athenian jury that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology, 38a5–6) he did not caution the jurists not to examine their life "too much." He did not say, “Don’t go overboard with this life-examination stuff.  It will make you unhappy.” 


Nor did Socrates give any evidence to support what is obviously an empirical judgment about the consequence of leading a particular kind of life.  If it is true that Socrates actively pursued a life of philosophic study and put other active pleasures aside, he may be violating the Golden Mean, but he was also leading a life that he believed was worth living. Whether everyone else should mimic Socrates’ life has yet to be proved.


So what so-called ‘philosophy of life’ should we choose?  The life recommended by Rufat Rassulov, Socrates or J.S. Mill?  Do not turn to the analytic philosopher to answer this question.  Instead, ask a social scientist if they have empirical data to support any of the preceding proposals.


And by the way, let’s not confuse our students by referring to each of the italicized quotes as 'philosophy.' Tell them that the word 'philosophy' is ambiguous. Popular philosophy might be fun to think and talk about even though it is usually promulgated without any empirical evidence for support. This is certainly not what academic philosophers mean when they teach beginning students and make frequent reference to the work of the great philosophers.



[1] Helena de Bras, What’s Your Philosophy of Life? | The Point Magazine

[2] Roy T. Bennett. The Light in the Heart.

[3] Edwards and Papp. 1957. A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, New York: Free Press.

[4] Rufat Rassulov, 2021, “The Swedish Key to Happiness,” That’s Philosophical, #9.

[5]. The Doctrine of the Mean appeared in Greek thought at least as early as the Delphic maxim "nothing in excess.”  It was discussed in Plato's Philebus, and Aristotle analyzed the golden mean in the Nicomachean Ethics Book II: Virtues of character can be described as means, for example the virtue of courage is the mean between the vices of cowardice and recklessness (For more history, see” Golden mean—Philosophy” on Wikipedia).