A little while ago on Skholiast’s blog, Elisa Freschi pointed to an argument from Nicholas Shackel attacking the “pro-choice” position on abortion. Shackel objects deeply to the following claim from the US’s newly elected Catholic vice-president, Joe Biden:
I accept my church’s position on abortion…. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews…I just refuse to impose that on others.
As Shackel notes, such a position is hardly unique to Biden. Forms of this position are very common; in many Western countries, they may even be the most common. It is the position one could reasonably call “anti-abortion but pro-choice”. And as far as Shackel is concerned, such a position is ignorant or worse. He says nothing in the article about a pro-abortion position – the position expressed perhaps most eloquently by Episcopal Divinity School dean Katherine Ragsdale in her speeches claiming that “abortion is a blessing”. No doubt Shackel would have strongly negative things to say about views like Ragsdale’s as well, but he rightly avoids saying anything about them in this piece, for they are not his point. He’s not writing about being pro-abortion, he’s writing about being anti-abortion but pro-choice. Which is a more common position to take, but also more difficult to make philosophically consistent. (As, one should add, is its flip side: making abortion illegal except in cases of rape and incest.)
Shackel asks good and pointed questions about Biden’s worldview. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that abortion is murder. Since human life begins at conception, those who end it are intentionally ending an innocent human life, which is murder. If you accept this position, how can it make sense to “refuse to impose that on others”? It is not controversial that governments should outlaw murder, and impose that outlawing on others. Biden presumably believes that. So if you do believe that abortion is murder, how can you believe on good conscience that a government should allow it?
Shackel interprets Biden’s approach as relativism, which is a position I have come out against often enough. Relativism logically entails positions that make little sense. In this case, Shackel interprets Biden as saying that abortion may be morally wrong for me, but not for others, so that logically I should go to jail if I do it, but someone else shouldn’t if they do. And it’s hard, as Shackel notes, to see how the same reasoning would not then apply to other kinds of killing.
But there is another, non-relativist, possibility that I don’t think Shackel acknowledges anywhere in this post. This position is that we simply aren’t sure enough of our own position – and that where such doubt applies, we should be stricter on ourselves than we are on others. So I might think that abortion is wrong and be confident enough in that to accept the Church’s teaching in my own life, but not confident enough to force it on others. As far as I can tell, this is not a relativist position and does not entail the negative consequences of relativism. It is merely a position of epistemic humility: a recognition that moral questions are hard, and that while it is vitally important to reflect on them and live by the results of our reflection, we should be cautious about being too quick to extend those results to others. There may be other ideas we hadn’t thought about.
I think such a humility is generally well taken. There has been a vast amount of reflection on what it is to live well and make good decisions, an amount very difficult to take in even for philosophers. We need to act regardless, but we don’t necessarily need to impose that action on others. We can systematically deceive ourselves, and so can others, but we are rarely better equipped to identify that deception than they are. For this reason, many submit to the judgement of a church or tradition as better equipped than they are – but traditions, too, are made up of fallen human beings. We often cannot trust ourselves – but given his track record, in my view, even God has not displayed himself worthy of our trust.
One might well compare all this uncertainty to uncertainty about empirical matters. If I serve on a jury, I may believe that the defendant probably stabbed his brother. Maybe I’m 65% confident of this. And this may well be enough for me to justifiably avoid this man if I pass him on the street, to refuse to associate with him in my personal life. For I believe that he’s a murderer. But that limited degree of confidence is not good enough for me to agree that he be sentenced for murder. Unless my doubts on the matter are silenced, I must pronounce him not guilty and refrain from punishing him.
It seems to me that what is true in the particular and empirical case can also be true in the general and moral case. I may be sufficiently confident in church teaching that I would never abort a fetus myself, never ask for it, discourage my family members from doing it in the strongest possible terms. But I may still know just how many different views have been taken on the matter, and have a degree of doubt significant enough to matter – significant enough that I refuse to sentence others to punitive jail terms over something that might, in the end, not actually be wrong. In short: If abortion really is murder and we let people involved in it go free, that’s bad. If abortion really isn’t murder and we punish people for it as if it were, that’s worse.
I do not know whether any of this is Joe Biden’s position. He has left sufficient room for his statement to be read in many ways. One might be able to understand his position more effectively by reading more of his public statements, but there is no need to do that here, for my point is not about Joe Biden, and if I understand Shackel, neither is his. The point is about whether it is possible to consistently hold a position that is anti-abortion but pro-choice, and I believe that it is – on these grounds of epistemic humility.
The importance of epistemic humility is also the reason I have made this post here. Love of All Wisdom is not a “political blog” in the usual sense, and I generally avoid wading into the details of particular political issues. (Note I didn’t say anything here about my own substantive position on the issue.) While I do not believe that political activism is essential to the good life, I have noted before how reflection on politics can tell us interesting and important things about the good life. And I think abortion is of significant interest here because it illustrates what epistemic humility can look like in practice.