The Positivistic Mentality and the Gospel of Life

In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II alludes to the philosophy of the human person that has given rise to the culture of death, and with which its proponents seek to replace the sanctity of life ethic: “In the background there is the profound crisis of culture, which generates skepticism in relation to the very foundations of knowledge and ethics, and which makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is, the meaning of his rights and his duties.”

As the late pontiff points out in another encyclical, Fides et Ratio, the reason for this skepticism is what is often called scientism, the belief that the deliverances of the hard sciences are the only things that we can know apart from mathematics or logic. Calling this “the positivistic mentality,” since its proponents maintain that meaning and purpose are posited or imposed by our minds on an ultimately purposeless and purely material universe, John Paul notes that when it “took hold,” it “not only abandoned the Christian vision of the world,” it “more especially rejected every appeal to a metaphysical or moral vision.”

What he means by this is that once a society embraces scientism, or at least its spirit, certain beliefs can no longer be considered live options. For example, if purpose and meaning cannot be derived from the natural world, including human nature, but only imposed on it by us, then there are no actual goods to which a human being is ordered. Thus, we can only know what is good for the individual person by knowing his desires, that is, what he believes are in his interests. The positivistic mentality rules out the possibility that a person’s understanding of his own interests could be mistaken relative to some objective standard, or that a human being may be entitled to certain goods even if he has no actual desires for them.

This is why there are many who believe that a political community that denies a citizen the right to suicide violates the right of that citizen. If there are no basic objective goods to which a human being is ordered, such as the good of life, and if what is good is merely what the individual desires (as long as the fulfillment of his desires does not impede the desires of a similarly situated citizen), then there can be no principled grounds by which a society can reject the right to suicide, given the positivistic mentality. For this reason, as John Paul notes, such a society “recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy.”

This is why the preborn, and increasingly, the newborn, are thought by many, especially among the intelligentsia, to be outside the scope of the moral community. Recently, in the Journal of Medical Ethics,  philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva presented this perspective with stunning candor. In an article entitled, “After Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?,” they argue, among other things, that both the preborn and the newborn, though human beings, are not persons, and thus lack moral status.

What they mean by “person” is “an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” That is, if a human being is not presently able to value his own life – as in the cases of preborns, newborns, and those in persistent vegetative states or suffering from degenerative neurological conditions – his life has no objective value.

As the title of their article suggests, the authors want to provide a defense of infanticide, or what they euphemistically call “after birth abortion.” They give it that name because of what they think is a medical problem that abortion is presently not able to remedy: the birth of a handicapped or defective newborn that would have likely been aborted prenatally if its mother had known of the child’s abnormality.

Because many abortions in fact occur precisely because the mother is made aware of such a diagnosis, and the newborn is no more a person than the preborn, Giubilini and Minerva argue that it is unjust to deny these parents an opportunity to rid themselves of a burden they could have legally eliminated only weeks earlier.

Consequently, if a parent believes her child, preborn or newborn, is too much of a burden to her, her society, her family, her other children, or even to her economic well being, then when the law allows her to terminate the child’s life, the child is not wronged.

What we have here is an illustration of a civil society which, in the words of John Paul II, “is no longer the `common home’ where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant state, which arrogates itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members. . .in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part.”

Without scientism, or what John Paul II called “the positivistic mentality,” it is unlikely that the culture of death would have ever gained traction in many of our societies. Without first undercutting the basis for the sanctity of human life – equal dignity and respect grounded in a human nature that we all share and which is ordered toward certain goods or perfections – the ideas propagated by scholars like Giubilini and Minerva would rarely if ever be seriously entertained.

            Robert Royal, Cdl. Raymond L. Burke, and Francis Beckwith at the Vatican

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).