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Abortion and Morality

If abortion is to be one of your major concerns, as it was in the premier issue, shouldn’t it be discussed as the tragedy it is for those persons, mostly young and unmarried, who have neither a moral nor a legal right to bear children?

Why is fornication itself immoral? Largely because of the adverse con- sequences in the long run for children conceived by unmarried women. An unmarried woman has no moral right to bear a child, as Pope John Paul II has said. She has no moral right to have an abortion. Or to commit suicide.

If all the alternatives are immoral, does this mean that they should also be illegal? Not necessarily. And clearly, the emphasis ought to be on prevention. But there would be fewer teenagers keeping and raising their children, as 96 percent now do, if government did not provide subsidies to help them “realize their dreams.”

John Nelson Snell
towson, md

Capitalism and Morality

Paul Johnson’s article “The Capitalism & Morality Debate” (March) is a good first attempt at addressing the issue: he puts the proper limits on it and asks the right questions. Beyond that, one should turn to some relatively recent work in the physical sciences, specifically the theory of self-organizing systems, chaos theory, and fractal geometry, all of which are related. Ilia Prigogine, now of the University of Texas (Austin) received the Nobel prize in chemistry (1977) for his work in this area.

One would never think of asking about the morality of Newton’s laws of motion. It would be a meaningless question. We now know enough about systems far from equilibrium such as certain types of chemically reacting systems and economic systems to realize the importance of self-organization. The rules which govern them are strongly analogous to Newton’s laws or the laws of quantum mechanics and must be taken as God-given at least up to a point. While that “old young man” of economics and sociology, Friedrich Hayek, has made a beginning in applying concepts of self-organization to market economics, the field is essentially virgin. It is crying out for pioneering work. Although such investigations are not likely to uncover any direct answers to the old question about the morality of capitalism, they will, I think, further clarify the “natural law” character of the market and the futility of trying to force it to be a moral rather than amoral actor. This said, the type of constraints suggested by Johnson do supply at least part of the missing link to the moral world.

It is interesting that these ideas underlie much of the physics of the “greenhouse effect.” So far, the proponents of imminent climatic disaster have not taken account of the questions raised by self-organization/chaos/fractals, [which means] they are missing perhaps the most important element of the whole question about global warming.

Robert C. Whitten
cupertino, ca

Absolutism and Relativism

Two points concerning David Novak’s “The Closed Mind of Arthur Schlesinger” (March).

First, Novak is right to criticize Schlesinger’s account of the American mind, but he himself deserves to be criticized for failing to recognize its worst feature, namely, the pernicious character of its argument. Relativism, says Schlesinger, is the peculiar American virtue; relativism “is what America is all about”; everyone we admire—among them Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Learned Hand, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr—was a relativist. Even, astonishingly enough, Abraham Lincoln (“the greatest of them all”). Lincoln, the man who led the nation into the bloodiest of its wars rather than compromise on the slavery issue! To avoid that war, it was proposed in Congress that the Missouri Compromise line be made part of the Constitution, thereby, in effect, making the country half free, half slave. Lincoln, the President-elect, would have none of it. “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery,” he wrote to a Congressman willing to do just that. “The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over. [Senator Stephen A.] Douglas is sure to be again trying to bring in his “Pop. Sov.” Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.” Not Lincoln but Douglas, whose presidential candidacy was based on the proposition that slavery was neither good nor bad, was the relativist, and Schlesinger, a famous American historian, must have known this.

Second, like Schlesinger, Novak engages in a bit of character assassination; he calls Allan Bloom an “absolutist.” I challenge him to cite one line from The Closing of the American Mind, one paragraph, one piece of evidence, that supports this charge. One line, Professor Novak.

Walter M. Berns
georgetown university
washington, d.c.

David Novak responds:

I am glad that Professor Berns agrees with my overall criticism of Arthur Schlesinger’s wholesale characterization of the American mind as essentially relativistic. His point about Schlesinger’s misuse of the example of Abraham Lincoln is quite apt, but . . . not being a scholar of American history, it is one that I needed a scholar like Professor Berns to call to my attention. I am . . . a theologian and it was Schlesinger’s remarks about religion in American life that I felt most compelled to criticize.

As for Allan Bloom, Professor Berns misunderstands my designation of him as an “absolutist” in contrast to Schlesinger, who is a selfstyled “relativist.” Although the term “absolutist” can have a pejorative connotation, I clearly meant it to be a compliment. For me, an absolutist is one who rejects relativism in the only truly cogent way: he or she affirms some absolute, or at least the possibility of some absolute. My designation, moreover, of Bloom as “ingenuous” and Schlesinger as “disingenuous” when it comes to religion’s role in our civilization shows my strong preference for Bloom over Schlesinger. As for the “one piece of evidence” that Professor Berns demands from me about Bloom’s absolutism, let me quote from the very first page of The Closing of the American Mind’s introduction: “ . . . almost every student believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative . . . . [It] is the modern replacement for the inalienable rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society.” The rest of Bloom’s book is an attempt to suggest an alternative to this state of affairs, which if not relativistic, must then be absolutist in some sense or other . . . .