What Our “Best Minds” Can’t Understand

Senior Editor’s Note: Robert Royal will be on The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio this afternoon beginning at 4:30 P.M. (EDT). Relevant Radio’s website has complete listings of its programs and stations, as well as a LISTEN NOW button that will stream the current program to your computer. Mr. Mariani and Dr. Royal will discuss Bob’s memories of Francis Cardinal George of Chicago. -ABM

I thought, at the time, that it was just a young woman remarkably slow of wit, even if she was a professor of law. It never occurred to me that she was a harbinger of things to come. It was in the mid-1990s and a band of us from First Things were appearing to defend, in a law school in New Orleans, our arguments on abortion and the abuses of judicial power. I wouldn’t say that the critics were overmatched, but apart from me they had to deal with Fr. Richard Neuhaus, Robert George, and Russell Hittinger.

In one panel I was noting again that the offspring in the womb never changes its species; that it is human at every stage of its existence; that its human standing cannot depend on its height or weight; and that the child is inescapably innocent of wrongdoing.

That was the moment when that young professor of law startled me. “But it’s in my womb,” she said. I quickly responded that the key point, I thought, was that the child was an innocent human being, and whether it’s right or wrong to kill that innocent being was utterly indifferent to location. “That victim could be in a bus station,” I said, and it would make no difference.

To which the young professor responded with indignation, “Are you saying that my womb is like a bus station?” I said, “I hope it’s not.”

That was about eighteen years ago. But we seem to encounter evidence at every turn that even people with professional degrees seem to have trouble in grasping the notion of the “principle” at work in any argument. I’ve often used, as a model of principled reasoning, that fragment Lincoln wrote for himself, in which he imagined a conversation with an owner of slaves, putting the question of how that slavery could be justified. Was the slave less intelligent than the master? Well then the owner could be rightly enslaved by the next white man more intelligent than he. Was it color? The lighter skin having the right to enslave the darker? Beware again: he could rightly be enslaved by the next white man with a complexion even lighter than his own.

In other words any principle brought forth here could justify the enslavement of whites as well as blacks.

Some of us have used precisely the same mode of argument on abortion, in asking why the child in the womb is not protected by the law. And in the same way we discover that there is no “principle” brought forth to justify the abortion that would not apply to many people walking about well outside the womb. The child is not wanted? By that measure we would have lost Joe Biden years ago. Would the child be dependent on the care of others? We don’t think people lose their human standing as they become dependent on the care of others.

"Maternal Caress" by Mary Cassatt, 1896
“Maternal Caress” by Mary Cassatt, 1896

My own students seem to grasp the connections at once. But I’ve been astonished by the number of people I’ve encountered recently, even people with college educations, who profess to see no connection. We’re talking about two different things, they say. What does slavery have to do with abortion?

In the argument over the homosexual life, the incomprehension seems to run deeper, attended with anger. I’ve pointed out that even gay activists will regard certain “sexual orientations” as illegitimate. They argue over whether the Man-Boy Love Association should appear in a Gay Pride Parade. They may also have reservations about the sexual highs produced by sex with animals or asphyxiation. They may have doubts then, along with the rest of us, as to whether people committed to these “orientations” should be entrusted with adopted children.

Then how could we be justified in laws that, in a sweeping way, would ban all discriminations based on “sexual orientation”? And yet some graduates of my college, men now in their sixties, have accused me of saying that homosexual sexual sex is the same as sex with animals. Or that I’m treating the two as analogous.

But no, there is no suggestion of an “analogy.” If I offer the proposition that people “should be free to do what they wish,” that proposition could encompass a right to commit homicide and plagiarism. But we wouldn’t be saying that homicide is just like or “analogous” to plagiarism.

One of my favorite commentators, Charles Krauthammer, remarked recently on the case for barring late-term abortions, because the baby in the womb could now be seen in ultrasound pictures. But apart from that, he has registered no sense of any special importance in our politics of an issue that involves the killing of over one million small, innocent humans each year in this country.

But surely Krauthammer could not think that a tall 60-year-old is more human than a small human in the womb; nor could he possibly think that the killing of a 60-year-old is more of a homicide than the killing of a two- year-old.

Has something happened, when I was not looking? Something that has affected now even our “best minds?” We hear so much these days about “polarization” in our politics. But the deeper polarization may involve the division, found in both parties, and marked by the deep erosion of those furnishings of mind of the people who would supply our “political class.”

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.