Douglas Triggs (doubt72) wrote,
Douglas Triggs
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The Philosophical Basis of My Contempt for Charles J. Chaput

Be forewarned -- this is another rant. And, as it involves the utterly offensive topics of politics and abortion... Well, please don't read it if you think it might offend you. Seriously. Even if, of course, I am (as usual) unquestionably correct and should rightly expect any sane and rational person will agree with me.


I was raised in (and to some extent, by) the Roman Catholic Church. Even today, despite the fact that I no longer believe -- and perhaps never really have believed -- in any God, Catholic or otherwise, I still identify with it to some extent. I continue to have a fondness for the Church and the people in it, and as such, I'm royally pissed off at the Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, highest-ranking prelate of the Archdiocese of Denver.

In a recent interview, Chaput said that voting for someone like Kerry who supports abortion rights or embryonic stem cell research would be a sin that must be confessed before receiving communion.

"If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil?" he asked. "And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes."

This (if you haven't already guessed) has me pretty hot, like few other things have made me hot this election season (and this particular race is chock full of potential irritants). The reasons why are really rather complex (although one of the main ones is that Chaput said this in Denver, making it even more personally offensive), but I'll do my best to explain myself.

Now, I've been asked how I can (like Kerry) be against abortion, yet politically pro-choice. That's a really good question, and a complicated one. To really explain it (and for the purposes of further discussion after I get through this point), I'll have to include a little bit of philosophical bankground. I want to first talk about Immanuel Kant (someone I think everyone should be familiar with, but if not, I'd like to introduce you to him). Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg (part of Prussia at the time, now the Russian city of Kaliningrad), and is probably best known for his twin works the Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason. They aren't, perhaps, his best books (especially the latter), but the names do roll off the tongue. In particular, I want to talk about his concept of the categorical imperative.

There's a certain pristine starkness to Kant's philosophy, something somehow fitting for his status as a Prussian. His reasoning is very dense and can be hard to understand at times, but to oversimplify, Kant postulated that morality was a priori, that is, before reason. In other words, there are universal laws and things are right or wrong according to those laws. This can be a very attractive philosophy, especially if you dilute it a bit... Things are right because they're right because they're right. It doesn't take much though, and it gives you the stirring glow of righteousness. And, to tell the truth, I think we could use a little unswerving righteousness now and then -- there are few things worse than moral cowardice; that way lies hypocracy. But I also think you should seriously and frequently examine what your righteousness is based upon. And ultimately, I don't agree with Kant very much, despite the fact that even I find the siren song of moral certainty hard to resist on occasion. But, I'm that worst sort of creature, I'm a moral relativist. I think context matters.

Now, a couple years after Kant died in 1804, the famous philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill was born. Mill is best known for the philosophy known as Utilitarianism, a philosophy he didn't invent but popularized and polished (he's also one of the fathers of Liberalism, which came to dominate moral philosophy after the end of the Enlightenment and whose modern decedents range from the current ideology of the same name to libertarianism, but that's beside the point). Utilitarianism is a philosophy that was in some ways a direct reaction to Kant, and the idea behind it is fairly simple (although this is once again something of a gross simplification) -- the right course of action is what is best for the greatest number of people while costing the least harm.

In theory, this might seem obviously better than any sort of absolute rules, but it runs into a couple of problems. First, how, exactly, do you define "good" and "harm?" Second, does this really imply that (if you are, in fact, serious in your responsibilities as a moral creature) you're required to make sacrifices for the common good, no matter how large, if by doing so the benefit is sufficient to justify it?

I, like most modern philosophers, fall somewhere in between. Whether or not there are absolute truths, application of those truths is not absolute -- every decision should be made on a case-by-case basis. Nor must I sacrifice my life even if know that by sacrificing it right now I might save ten other lives with my donated organs, which is one of the possible interpretations of a pure Utilitarian theory (something, in fact, that wouldn't have been advocated by Mill, as he was also quite libertarian in outlook by modern standards).

[I do have to say here that I'm not a completely logical creature. Sometimes I want to believe in something because it just feels right. But I also think the right thing to do is admit that your instincts are wrong when confronted with evidence telling you so and give up that position, however reluctantly. Because, if you intent to be truly moral, you have to do what's right no matter how uncomfortable it might make you. Like everyone else, I'm human, so I "sin" now and then. And you know what? That's okay, because at the end of the day, our standards for ourselves and each other should be reasonable -- there's no point in holding anyone to standards that aren't attainable. But I never want to commit a sin bad enough that I truly regret it, much less anything I couldn't live with.]

Now, back to abortion. I do think abortion is wrong. However, I don't class it as murder, because I hold that a fetus, no matter what its potential, is not yet a person. I don't think any such claim of murder based on pure potentiality holds water, because that's too much of a slippery slope. At one point is a fetus a person? Where's that line? Do you draw it as embryo? The egg cell? The sperm cell? What if technology reaches the point you can create a fertilized egg with the genetic material of two cells from two different people (as, I'm sure, it eventually will)? Does that make having an operation to remove an appendix murder, even if it's to save the life of the father? Obviously the question is ridiculous, but really, how is any line you draw not completely arbitrary and better than some other line until you have a baby who is no longer sharing the living resources of the mother?

Now, the fact that abortion isn't murder doesn't mean it isn't wrong. Take this analogy -- being cruel to animals is something I find absolutely reprehensible (in fact, depending on the victim, possibly worse than murder, as the animals can't defend themselves), and anyone who does it is in my view the basest sort of person. But killing animals isn't murder -- an animal isn't a person -- even if I still think doing it without justification is wrong (if you're going to hunt, eat the damned animal).

For one thing, I think abortion is a failure of responsibility on the part of the genetic donors (and so far, despite some poor choices on my part, I haven't been responsible for such). Because, while it isn't murder, it's likewise hard to draw a line too early when it's more and more possible along the course of the pregnancy to take that fetus out, keep it alive, and expect it to grow to full personhood. And the point at which that's possible will move farther back into the course of the pregnancy as medical technology advances. At some point, it will probably be possible to take the genetic material from two random cells from two different people and raise a baby without ever involving a mother at all. And as time goes on, drawing a line will only get stickier. In addition, I'm not ashamed to say that I find that killing a nearly full-grown fetus just plain icky on a purely emotional level.

But, what we're really talking about here is potential. We're talking about something that simply isn't a person yet, no matter how small the gap between the potential and the reality. And one reason that, while I don't approve of abortion per se, I'm still pro-choice is that there are always other factors involved. Will that baby be born to a mother that wants it, and if not, will there be someone there to adopt it? Will that baby contribute to overpopulation and poverty? Even if the mother made a mistake in the first place, is she really required to suffer for that mistake? (Because, well, not all abortions are equal. Taking a night-after pill isn't exactly equivalent to waiting until the last possible minute before birth.) But those aren't really why I'm pro-choice, truth be told. The main reason I'm pro-choice is a simple question: what, exactly, would making abortion illegal solve? Would it stop abortions? No. People who could afford it would simply go to Canada. People who couldn't afford it would still do it illegally. We know exactly what will happen if abortion is illegal because we've seen it.

And this brings up a major point... If there's a problem, no matter what the American people seem to think, no matter how bad a problem is, making it illegal will not make it go away. In fact, it often makes the really tough problems worse. Doesn't anybody remember what happened with prohibition? Are people so blind that they think the dubiously named War on Drugs has actually solved any problems, and that making drugs illegal has in any way stopped drug abuse, or done anything except make it more difficult for the people who really need help to get it, eventually costing us money when hospitals have to deal with the fallout? Haven't they ever noticed that the only thing the War on Drugs has managed to defeat are the civil liberties of the American people (although, fortunately for all of us, even there the results are mixed)? But that's a rant for another time...

But having a blanket ban on abortion didn't really solve much of anything. It didn't stop abortion, and it bloody well had side effects.

And that brings us back to Chaput. The issue that propted him to say what he did was, in fact, abortion. Chaput is part of a group of conservative bishops that many more moderate bishops consider an embarrasment, and holds to the very diluted Kant-lite righteousness that I consider bankrupt, because while it may not be morally lazy, it's certainly intellectually so... Or worse, dishonest. I don't have contempt for the stance that abortion is evil, I can respect that, even if I wouldn't personally go so far as to use that word. I don't even have contempt for the stance that abortion should be made illegal, because if abortion is evil, perhaps it's worth the costs.

What I do have contempt for is the view that abortion trumps all other issues. That because (in the words of the most conservative groups in the Church) abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research (really directly related to abortion) are "non-negotiable issues," somehow war, poverty, the death penalty and any number of other issues aren't even worthy of consideration. That "One can't hold public office and say it's O.K. to kill some of the public." That's ridiculous -- I'm sorry, but someone who hasn't been born yet bloody well isn't yet part of the public.

In the past, the consensus opinion of the Church as a whole has been that the people should weigh the issues with the weight they deserve and vote their conscience. This, I see as the right approach. This, I see as the moral approach. To loudly and stridently tell your parishoners that it's a sin to vote if their conscience tells them to hold their nose and vote for the least worst candidate -- even if they're pro-choice -- because the other candidate is even worse on other issues of moral importance... Well, if you ask me, that's the sin, and a big one. A sin rife with dishonesty, chock-full of hypocracy, and can only be described as misguided. Because, to steal the words that liberal Catholics have been running in parish papers in swing states, "Life Does Not End at Birth." And this is why I don't have any respect for anybody who votes simply on that single issue, because the attitude of "get 'em born then screw 'em" is one of either ignorance or deep hypocracy, whether they realize or not that voting on a that single issue amounts to just that.

And this is why I think the Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver is morally bankrupt when he publicly says that voting for John Kerry is a sin. Shame on you, Archbishop Chaput. I think that the Jesuits priests and brothers that taught me in high school (a group that I have the utmost respect for as a group) would want to have a few words with you, because unlike you, they actually think about what they say.

Oh, and I want to say one more thing. Damn you, John Scalzi. Damn you for inspiring me to post this instead of just ranting about it at work with some of my co-workers and the end of a particularly slow day. I'd say that someday I'll get you for this, but I don't really know how, so, uh, never mind.
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