Rod Dreher calls attention to an essay by Michael Brendan Dougherty , who asks pointed questions about the failure of the thirty-six year old pro-life movement to make any significant gains against a regime of unrestricted abortion. Dougherty’s essay strikes a long and resonant chord with me: while I have sympathized with the aims of the pro-life movement, I have never felt drawn to the movement as it has been constituted, mostly because I have thought that much of the movement approached this issue without the necessary depth of understanding about the relationship of the pro-choice supporter of abortion and the larger culture of choice that is at the heart of modern liberal philosophy. By hitching their star to the Republican Party, and approaching the issue as a legal rather than a deeper philosophical theological and thus cultural crisis, the prospects for success were always likely to fail to the extent that there was an unwillingness to confront the broader “culture of choice” that is the hallmark of modern civilization. Indeed, by acquiescing to a broader “culture of choice” that is fostered especially by a market economy understood to be unfettered and driven by the free and unrestrained choices of individuals, it can be argued that the pro-life movement was actually aiding and abetting the very culture from which a pro-choice abortion regime arose.
We should see clearly that the moral relativism that makes it possible to dismiss the inviolability of human life is not the result of fancy French or German philosophical imports (this was always the argument made by Strauss, and later by Bloom, who wanted - understandably - to stand by liberal democracy during years of threat from fascism and communism). Moral relativism is articulated very clearly in the opening chapters of Hobbes’s Leviathan , the work that laid the philosophical foundations for modern liberalism and particularly a defense of the natural autonomy of individuals and which made individual choice the sole basis of political and increasingly social legitimacy. Thus wrote Hobbes in Chapter 10 of Leviathan , “Of Power, Worth, Dignity, Honour and Worthiness”: “The value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power, and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of soldiers is of great price in time of war present or imminent, but in peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt judge is much worth in time of peace, but not so much in war. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the price. For let a man, as most men do, rate themselves at the highest value they can, yet their true value is no more than it is esteemed by others.”
At the heart of modern liberalism is an argument that human beings do not possess inherent dignity, but only the value that is accorded to them by the estimation of others. That is, human value is itself set by a market of valuation, as subject to fluctuation as the daily rise and fall (mostly fall) of stocks on the financial exchanges. In modernity, the value of frail individuals - especially the unborn - fell to less than the worth of penny stocks, unwanted intruders on the autonomy of sexually and professionally liberated individuals (it should be noted that among the most ardent supporters of abortion rights are young men. You figure it out). Again, Strauss and Bloom argued in their most famous works that the language of “values” was a foreign import, introduced to America via Max Weber who learned relativism through the pages of Nietzsche. This was, to say the least, a flattering fiction to liberal democracy: value relativism was present at the creation, a function of the market in all things, including humans.
Are we prepared to consider the possibility that abortion is not itself an isolated evil, but a deeper symptom - pernicious and malevolent, yes - of a deeper philosophical, theological and cultural crisis? If so, the way forward becomes even murkier, but at least we will divest ourselves of the oft self-congratulatory belief that we are dealing in the realm of easy political solutions - long a shibboleth of liberalism itself. By returning to the very sources of our larger, deeper, and more pervasive modern crisis can we begin to see a way forward in rightly changing a culture that more generally has ceased to understand the meaning of the word “generation” in every sense of the term.
Also posted at What I Saw in America .