A Second Look at First Things

Most books and articles in political and legal philosophy are dry. One rarely finds in them humorous anecdotes, memorable characters, or philosophical insights extracted from figures and events in popular culture. In his 1986 book First Things, however, Hadley Arkes elegantly weaves together all three in order to illustrate and illuminate his sophisticated and compelling arguments.

In discussing Mr. Justice McReynolds opinions in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. the Society of Sisters (1925) – two cases in which the Supreme Court affirmed a fundamental right of parents to educate their children – Arkes argues that the right is conditioned upon advancing the children’s good, which means that the right is ultimately tethered to a moral understanding of the proper relationship between parents and their offspring. Writes Arkes: “What [McReynolds] seemed to affirm in Meyer and Pierce was that parents had a residual, presumptive authority for the education of their children. But nothing in his opinion would have obliged the state to hold back if the parents sought to enroll their children in Mr. Fagin’s School of Pickpocketry or in a vocational academy cultivating the trade of prostitution.”

While explaining the phenomenon of monozygotic twinning and recombination and why it does not count against the human personhood of the early embryo, Arkes asks us to “imagine, for example, two men – we will call one `Billy,’ and the other `Martin.’” He then teases out this illustration in the following way:

[S]uppose that when their shoulders touch they merge to a form a single being incomparable in character, whom we may call “Billy Martin” (and who, so far as we know, has no duplicate anywhere in the civilized world). The question is whether we can assume that “Billy” and “Martin” had much reality or integrity as separate beings before they merged to form “Billy Martin”. . . .What if “Billy” were killed on the street before he had ever met “Martin” and consummated his destiny? Would the assailant be exonerated of any crime because “Martin” was incomplete or uncombined and therefore less than a fully human being with the right to be protected from unjust assaults? We could hardly think so, and if the analogy were applied to zygotes, I am afraid that we would simply be faced with another variant of the problem expressed by the refrain, “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the uterine wall.”

Among the characters that pop up in First Things are Carl Yastrzemski, Woody Allen, Pope John XXIII, Sam Giancana, Reggie Jackson, Barbara Streisand, Bob Hope, Pete Rose, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the Queen of England. And each, like Mr. Fagin’s School of Pickpocketry or Billy Martin, is introduced in order to make an important point about the application of some moral principle or truth in relation to the nature of the act or thing in question.

The good professor: Hadley Arkes

Elsewhere in First Things, Arkes unleashes his rapier wit on a variety of moral and legal questions. About Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade, Arkes observes:

Anyone in America who writes these days about abortion must take account of the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade; and in estimating the “quality of mind” manifested by the Court, he would have to regard that profundity which stands near the beginning of Justice Blackmun’s opinion for the majority: “Pregnancy often comes more than once to the same woman, and . . . if man is to survive, [pregnancy] will always be with us.” One becomes aware instantly that one is in the presence of no ordinary mind. Justice Blackmun’s opinion reached, with this memorable passage, its philosophic acme. In the balance of the opinion – which is to say, in the parts that sought to settle the substantive rights and wrongs of the issue – Blackmun’s opinion achieved that distance from any rigorous philosophic and moral reasoning which has become typical of the Supreme Court in our own time.

In Roe v. Wade, the Court also held that the state’s interest in pre-natal life becomes compelling only after the fetus is physically capable of living outside the womb without the benefit of its mother. Blackmun mistakenly argued that because the pre-viable fetus lacks physical independence from its mother, it is therefore not an independent being with intrinsic dignity. “Once again,” write Arkes, “the Court fell into the fallacy of drawing a moral conclusion (the right to take a life) from a fact utterly without moral significance (the weakness or dependence of the child). The Court discovered, in other words, that novel doctrines could be wrought by reinventing old fallacies.”

In a chapter entitled “The Fallacies of Cultural Relativism; Or, Abbott and Costello Meet the Anthropologist,” Arkes addresses an argument for relativism that appeals to the fact of cultural differences. While presenting the argument, he explains, “In one society, a widow is burned on the funeral pyre of her husband; in another, she is burned on the beach in Miami. In one society, people complain to the chef about the roast beef; in another, they send back the roast beef and eat the chef.”

Although many more examples could be marshaled, I think I’ve made my point: sometimes even the most sophisticated argument, no matter how compelling, is best grasped when wrapped in a humorous narrative or disclosed in pearls of wit. As Chesterton once put it, “Wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it.”

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).