More on abortion, and liberalism (and for that matter liberaltarianism)
One of the key questions of political philosophy is about when it is ever appropriate for a state to use its coercive power. People have often had various answers to his question. The ancients (both the Greeks and the Chinese) thought that the aim of the state was to help its citizens to be virtuous beings. In fact, until the enlightenment (with rare exceptions), this was pretty much the only game in town. That changed.
In liberal societies where there is a separation between church and state, at least some un-virtuous actions are permitted and even protected from interference by others. However, even in such liberal societies, many of the citizens still think that the state has some kind of role in forbidding immoral acts and permitting morally permissible acts. This is what happens when people rail against the greed of the bankers or when they argue that x should be forbidden because it is morally wrong, or that y should be permitted because it is not. Even in the abortion debate, both sides often do this. A lot of pro-lifers argue that abortion should not be permitted because it is morally wrong. Similarly a lot of pro-choicers deny that it is morally wrong or try to reduce the extent to which it is wrong. i.e. it may be as wrong as killing a chicken, which even if wrong, is not wrong enough to warrant sanction by the state. So, there is no full separation, the state should only forbid the more heinous of sins. Of course, on the pro-choice side there are also people like Jaybird who note that abortion is wrong, but that it still should be permitted. Of course Jaybird gets it. Just because something is immoral doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be prohibited. After all, all that it means to say that something is immoral is that we shouldnt do it, not that we should force others not to do it. Of course on my side of the issue, I’ve never met a pro-lifer who got it. Unfortunately almost everyone else who agrees with me on whether the state should permit abortion doesn’t seem to get the contradictions that they face when they say that abortion should be illegal because it is immoral and that the government shouldn’t interfere in religious matters. Obviously, there are some pro-lifers who are plenty fine with government entanglement with religion, but let’s ignore them for the moment. There are still lots of pro-lifers who have nevertheless internalised much of liberalism’s concerns with religious arguments in the public sphere. Pro-lifers don’t just appeal to their own religious traditions, they also appeal to public reasons or make sincere efforts to do so. This indicates that separation of church and state is something that they value. If they didn’t, why not just appeal to religious reasons?
Here’s the rub: It is still inconsistent to hold that there is a separation between religion and state but deny the separation of morality and state. (This is not to deny that in so far as the state can be considered an actor it has obligations. Nor is it to deny that the actors who make up the state also do have moral obligations. People who have direct control over basic social institutions obviously are not exempt from moral obligations). What is so special about religious morality that the fact that a particular religion considers something immoral ought to have no weight on whether it becomes illegal but the fact that there are Kantian or utilitarian arguments for the immorality of something does? Just as not everyone may be of a particular religion, not everyone is a Kantian or a utilitarian either. After all, if we allow non-religious morality into the public sphere but forbid religious morality from it, aren’t we discriminating against religion. Or is it the other way around? After all, the separation of church and state has been awfully good to the church. There is higher church attendance and religiosity in america where there is a strict separation than in other countries where the separation has been looser. (Of course that means that 200 years from now, Saudi Arabia will become the Amsterdam of the middle east.). Now if separation is to the benefit of the church, then by singling out religion, aren’t we discriminating against non-religion? After all, the entanglement of the state with religion corrupts religion as much as it does the state. So, why doesn’t the entanglement of non-religious morality with the state also corrupt the state and non-religious moral philosophies? Let us probe even deeper. There seems to be two kinds of views as to why religion should be singled out as the thing to be kept separate from the state. Let’s explore the first kind. One view is simply that we cannot be sure of the truth of religious doctrines because religious doctrines are based on faith. Another might say that religion is the kind of thing that is personal because it is just for Sundays etc. i.e. religion is trivial, so establishing the truth of it one way or another on the part of the state is not necessary. Another kind of view says that religion is too important to leave to the state. The problem with both kinds of views is that none of these can serve as a rationale for the state to limit itself by separating from religion. By espousing any of the above views, the state thereby expresses some view about the importance or lack thereof of religion or the reasonability of religious belief. However, this itself constitutes an illegitimate entanglement of the state with religion. The state cannot therefore single out religion as the thing which it shouldnt entangle itself without at the same time entangling itself with religion.
What this means is that if the state were to give a rationale for refraining from entanglements with religion, it would have to be part of a more general principle regarding what the state may or may not entangle itself with. What I therefore propose as the alternative principle is what I call the separation of state and any comprehensive moral doctrine. Ultimately, this is what political liberalism is all about.
Of course, many of you guys may be thinking: what about laws against murder, rape etc? How do we justify such laws that restrict particular actions if we cannot appeal to the wrongness of said actions? Or even more fundamentally, we could even ask what makes us think that an action being immoral does not count as a reason in favour of outlawing it? But, to do that, we have to be clear about what we are looking for: we are looking for principles that govern the basic structure of society. i.e principles that govern basic social institutions whose role is to deal with conflicting claims people make against each other.
Let me expand on this point just a bit. People often make claims against each other. For example, person A is gay and wants to live with his gay partner and person B is morally offended by this. Satisfying A’s preference violates B’s preference and similarly satisfying B’s preference violates A’s. Given that we care about resolving this conflict, the question arises as to how we should go about doing so. The key to doing so lies in putting oneself behind a veil of ignorance where we don’t know what the moral principles are and we don’t know whether we will end up as A or B and then ask ourselves how we would resolve that conflict. i.e. Rawls’s original position. The full justification is here (although some of the arguments could have been stated more precisely). Here is also more on why a free-standing theory of justice is important and how much it can prove.
So in the original position, parties behind the veil of ignorance would choose certain restrictions on abortion. Let’s leave aside the question of whether the argument there is ultimately successful and instead look at the core issue of this post. This argument against abortion does not rely on abortion being morally wrong. As such this argument against legalising abortion is a liberal argument against abortion (and for that matter a libertarian one as well) The mere fact that it runs counter to what are traditional liberal positions does not change the fundamental nature of the argument. The conclusion is therefore clear: liberals qua liberalism should be against abortion as well. This is exactly the same way liberals should in addition to being in favour of gay marriage, should also be in favour of legalising polygamy, incestual marriages and marriages of convenience. Anyone who wants to contend with these positions has to argue either why what people in the original position would choose is irrelevant, or argue why people in the original position would protect the right to abortion. Calling me names doesnt cut it.