Recently, a colleague took issue with the suggestion that Abraham Lincoln believed in natural law. My colleague’s reasoning was that it’s “hard to see how Lincoln’s pragmatic response to Dred Scott – ‘I oppose spread of slavery to the territories but will not urge abolition in the existing slave states’ -- is an example of natural law philosophy.”
I hear the same argument so often that it’s worth a brief response. Such arguments are offered not just about Lincoln, but about every early American who detested slavery without agitating for instant abolition.
The classical natural law tradition has always distinguished three questions: What is evil (the moral question), what can be done about it (the pragmatic question), and who has authority to do it (the constitutional question). Lincoln made same distinction.
One may disagree with Lincoln’s pragmatic judgments concerning how best to put slavery on a path to extinction, or with his constitutional judgments concerning what he as president could or could not do about it. But he plainly thought slavery was a great evil which ought to disappear from this world as soon as possible.
We are allowed to remove the typical parasites from our bodies because of the harm they cause. Some argue a child is a parasite inside the mother's body. It takes away nutrients from her and treats her body as a host. The child brings no benefit to the mother when it is inside her body. So if it is okay to remove a parasite, why is it not okay to perform an abortion?
When you say “some argue” this, do you mean that you might be attracted to the argument too? Please reconsider. Mothers and fathers naturally love for their babies, care for them, and desire to sacrifice for them. If we find it plausible to view unborn children as parasites, I suppose that we must also find it plausible to view born children as vermin. Should we be attracted to this view too? Are toddlers something like rats, creeping around their parents’ houses and eating up their food? We may be coming to think that way. More and more, children are viewed as disposable. But do you want to go there?
You seem to assume that the interests of mothers and children are naturally opposed, but by nature, their interests are in harmony. Do you think that when you were developing in your mother’s womb, safe and protected, preparing to enter the world, you were no more than a tapeworm to her? Did she think you were a disease? Were you a disease? Something is dreadfully wrong if we can think of children like this.
Since nobody “chooses” to host a real parasite, if we did view babies as parasites, we would eradicate them. Your generation would be the last. You would die, alone, unmourned, because you would have prevented the birth of all those whom you might have loved and cared for, and who might love and care for you in turn.
Besides, the womb is the place nature intended the baby to be. It is the temporary natural home of every human being. Providing such a home is the only reason women have wombs at all: So that babies can be in them. It’s true that babies steal into our hearts, but they belong there too. We welcome them in, as you were once welcomed in. You were not a heartworm, but a precious child.
Think of all that you must work not to think about in order to forget all these things.
And if you have had an abortion yourself, please don’t be afraid to remember these things again. There is no surcease from the accusations of conscience in putting our fingers in our ears. Instead, acknowledge wrong, turn away from it, and seek forgiveness from the merciful God of all life, including yours.
The following op-ed appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 15 April 2022. Several weeks ago, I posted the first three paragraphs, but I am now permitted to post the entire text.
Happiness Is a Warm Company?
“A hot course at Harvard Business School promises to teach future leaders an elusive skill—managing happiness,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. This development was expected. After languishing for decades in philosophy departments, the study of happiness has become a growth industry.
Paying more attention to human well-being is a good thing, and those who try to teach happiness “skills” deserve an A for effort. But does the “happiness studies” approach get its subject entirely right?
Having written a new book about happiness, I admit I have skin in this game, but allow me to be contrarian. The classical philosophers did know something about happiness—and the happiness-studies crowd has forgotten not only most of their insights but also most of their questions. Let’s review some things they would have taught us.
In the first place, having a good life isn’t about skill. It’s about virtue. A skill is directed to producing or obtaining something separate from itself, as skill in carpentry makes wooden things, and skill in rhetoric obtains votes. But virtue isn’t a means to happiness in that sense. It isn’t separate from happiness but intrinsic to it. I might practice the skill of clever pickup lines to “get” girls, but the virtues of friendship don’t “get” friends; they are about the very practice of friendship. In the same way, a happy life will feature the practice of virtues, but virtues such as prudence, courage, temperance and justice aren’t ways of getting happiness. Rather, they are constituent parts of it.
Second, happiness is something pursued for its own sake. It’s good for managers to care about the happiness of their work team members, and probably true sometimes that happier workers are more productive. But although we might promote productivity for the sake of happiness, it would be silly to say that we should promote happiness for the sake of productivity.
A more charitable view is that the happiness-management folks are using the term “happiness” for something short of the ultimate end, using it for something that can be at least partly a means. Harmony among workers? Fewer absences? Fewer gripes? At the least the relation among means and ends needs to be reconsidered.
Third—this is a harder one, but the classical thinkers insist on it—happiness is not an “emotional benefit” or a “positive emotion,” as happiness-studies scholars like Martin Seligman and Jonathan Haidt view it. It isn’t an emotion at all. It isn’t something that we feel, but something that we do. It is the activity of flourishing, of living well and doing well. I don’t mean that happiness has no connection with feelings. We wouldn’t call a person suffering misery “happy.” Still, people can have all sorts of good feelings without being happy. Happiness is not so much about having the greatest possible quantity of good feelings, but about feeling the right things, on the right occasions, toward the right people, in the right ways, for the right reasons and to the right degree—which brings us back to virtue.
Last, although a good manager is admirable, and although doing well in one’s calling is a component in a good life—still, not even good management will lead to fulfillment. One of the great questions of history has been whether power or rule leads to happiness. Curiously, few in our day admit to believing that it does. Yet the same everyday people who deny that readily admit their passion to be administrators, join management, enter public service, be guides, motivate team members or have broader responsibilities. If someone says he wants to rule, we think he is a bad fellow, but if he expresses a need for empowerment, has ambition or aspires to leadership, we think he is a fine one.
Far be it from me to call this entirely wrong. All human beings need the portion of authority appropriate to their callings and stations in life. Businesspeople should seek appropriate authority to direct their enterprises. Teachers should seek appropriate authority to teach their students. Parents should seek appropriate authority to guide and direct their families for their children’s own good. In each of these little realms, the right kind of power can be exercised moderately and humbly, even if some people overreach.
But like wealth, like achievement, and like the respect of others, even the right kind and degree of authority is not happiness itself. Those drawn into management can be happy, but not if they think that managing skillfully will bring them ultimate fulfillment. It won’t. Not because the skills of managing happiness are “elusive”—but because happiness is not a skill and its ultimate sources lie elsewhere, such as the practice of the virtues and connection with the true meaning of life.
A friend who thinks abortion is wrong and should be prohibited nevertheless said to me, “People aren’t entirely devoid of moral understanding. Yet everywhere we look, the penalty for committing abortion is less than the penalty for committing murder. Doesn't this show that though abortion is wrong, it’s less wrong than killing someone who is already born?”
No, it doesn’t. Persons just after conception, just before birth, just after birth, and three years after birth are equally human, equally innocent, and equally alive, and the deed in each case is equally deliberate. If the underlying principle is that deliberately taking innocent human life is wrong, it is hard to distinguish among them.
For purposes of discussion I will take my friend’s word for it that most nations do treat the killing of born and unborn persons differently in criminal law. But then why do they?
Well, there’s my reason for treating them differently: The intrinsic wrong of the deed is not the only consideration in punishment. From the fact that the killing of born and unborn persons is equally dreadful, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the culpability of persons committing the deed is also equal. In other words, even if the deed is just as bad, the degree of guilt for it may not be.
Women who allow themselves to be led into abortions usually do so from weakness and desperation. Afterward, they often punish themselves much more cruelly than any law could do. By contrast, abortionists are predators who prey on weakness and desperation. More is to be accomplished by counseling women, and by providing them with prenatal and postnatal care, than by punishing them. As to the abortionists themselves: They should be punished as the murdering predators that they are.
Besides weakness and desperation, other factors may affect culpability. For example, the true nature of conception was not even discovered until the 1870s. We now understand that the union of an egg and a sperm produces a unique human individual, complete in the sense that he already possesses everything he needs for his development and growth; we didn’t know before. Has this fully sunk in? Perhaps not in all cases. Confusion does not make the act okay, but it may affect culpability for it. Notice that this doesn’t affect the culpability of abortionists. They know how conception works.
Consider too that human imagination is limited, and the unborn child is not visible from the outside. Abortionists know what the unborn child looks like; in fact they have to, because after slicing him up, they have to reassemble all the pieces to make sure they have extracted them all from the uterus. By contrast, many women can’t visualize the baby, and prior to a certain point in development, they don’t feel the baby moving either. This is why ultrasound pictures of the children living in their wombs tend to produce such enormous changes in the outlooks of women considering abortions – and why the abortion industry doesn’t want women to see them.
We could go on about things that may affect culpability. A more direct response to my friend’s argument has to do with how widespread abortion itself is among human cultures. She is right that all human beings have some moral understanding. The problem she overlooks is that the human condition is marked by two universals, not one: Universal moral knowledge, and the universal desire to evade it. The first one we owe to our creation; the second we owe to our fall.
So even if the killing of unborn persons has been treated as less serious than the killing of born ones almost everywhere – I don’t know this to be true, but I will take my friend’s word for it -- consider all the other dreadful evils that have been tolerated to one degree or another almost everywhere. Torture and enslavement of enemies. Lying to strangers. The sexual double standard. Polygamy and mistreatment of wives. Warring for nothing but power and territory. Political assassination.
Would we say that because the torture and enslavement of enemies has been practiced almost everywhere, it must not be as bad as torture and enslavement of fellow tribesmen? Or that because political assassination is treated differently than ordinary murder almost everywhere, it must not be as terrible?
I don’t think so.
The media are awash in stories about things like Tik Tok encouraging teen girls to obsess about their appearance. Yes, that’s happening, and yes, that’s bad, but phenomena like that are the merest slivers, the most superficial symptoms, of much deeper cultural changes we hardly notice. This generation may be the most heavily and intensely indoctrinated in history, and the change in how the young are brought up has been taking place since long before they were born.
In itself, indoctrination is good; children have to learn the rules and virtues, and be molded gradually into adults who will be capable of living wise and good lives. But how are they indoctrinated, and into what? We used to assume that each generation would be a lot like the one before it. No longer. But why not?
In the past, indoctrination had three chief characteristics. First, it emphasized moral virtue and close community. Things like playing fair and telling the truth were drummed into you. You were taught to take care of your family, friends, and neighbors, especially the closest, because they were the ones bound to you and whose welfare you could do something about. People were encouraged to form their own opinions about all sorts of things – but not about the cardinal virtues.
Second, indoctrination was conducted by families. Age and experience were viewed as deserving of respect. Schoolteachers viewed themselves as playing a purely supporting role, in loco parentis, not taking the place of parents but assisting them to do their work.
Finally, the formation of the character of the young took place largely by osmosis. Of course there was some explicit instruction, such as memorizing the Golden Rule. But much of what children learned, they learned by observing and imitating their elders, not by being told.
Today these three features of traditional indoctrination have been turned on their heads. As to the first, fewer and fewer children are indoctrinated in the everyday moral practices. Although they may be taught all sorts of things about “the world,” in many ways they are disconnected from their communities. They are encouraged to form their own opinions about morality – but they are fed a thousand social and political pieties like personal autonomy, saving the earth, and the equivalence of all ninety-six genders. Thus, to these youngsters, the primary meaning of good character isn’t prudence, courage, temperance, and justice, but holding the approved opinions on social issues. For them, the cardinal virtue of justice just is holding the approved opinions, and the cardinal virtue of temperance is a little bit ridiculous. In fact they aren’t taught that there are such things as cardinal virtues, although they may watch quickie video talks about confections like “emotional intelligence.”
As to the second, vanishingly small numbers of children are still indoctrinated primarily by parents. Instead they are shaped and taught primarily by impersonal mass popular culture, and in second place by school. At school, teachers compete with parents rather than supporting them, and the mob of peers has more influence than teachers anyway. Age and experience are regarded as worthless, because age equals decrepitude, and experience is obsolete. After all, of what value is experience if everything will be different (or will seem to be different) in another fifteen minutes?
As to the third, although learning still takes place by osmosis, the osmotic pressure now reaches children mostly from pop culture celebrities, whether musical superstars or tech industry heroes, as well as the bizarrely powerful feedback loops of social media, which reshape everything: Everything is a like or a not-like. What explicit instruction does take place is usually heavily ideological. “Experts” (pop loudmouths) are venerated. Wise men, though, are so yesterday.
There is one more difference. Formerly the young knew that they had been indoctrinated, and didn’t mind. They expected to be; they were being prepared for life as grown-ups. In a curious way, this shaping gave them strength to reflect on what they had been taught, and even to reconsider it. Today the young don’t know they are indoctrinated, and the suggestion that they are insults them. They think they have gone beyond all that. Each person fancies himself an independent mind, who just happens to think like all the rest.
Yet they are afraid of growing up. What a surprise.
One of the things a pro-life organization with which I’m associated found in our research is that the largest group of folks who might be persuaded to be truly pro-life are turned off by their perception that ardent pro-lifers don’t care about the mothers, but only about the babies. Our research indicates this perception is correct: Most pro-lifers don’t, in fact, care about the mothers. So to expand the pro-life group, we have to convince current pro-lifers to care about the mothers!
I have no doubt that your organization’s finding was reported accurately, but for two other reasons I’m skeptical. In the first place, I’d like to know how the researchers measured compassion for the mothers. For example, some researchers define compassion in terms of supporting government programs that wreck families and make people multi-generationally dependent instead of helping them to get on their feet. If compassion means giving people the kind of help that really helps, instead of the kind of help that hurts, then I don’t think opposing these programs lacks compassion; I think supporting them does.
More important, though, is this. You'd almost certainly get a different finding if instead of surveying people who merely hold ardent opinions about abortion, your organization surveyed people who actually do something for the cause of life. Are the people who work in your own pro-life organization indifferent to mothers? I’ll bet they aren’t, and you aren’t either. Otherwise, why would the finding concern you?
We see the sort of group difference I am describing in every social issue and every area of life, not just the pro-life movement. For example, people who merely call themselves Christians divorce just as often as people who don't, but people who show commitment by worshipping regularly divorce at markedly lower rates.
My wife was a volunteer crisis pregnancy counselor for 13 years, and let me tell you, the persons who volunteered in various capacities cared intensely about the women they served.
They counseled them, they walked those who were interested through lifestyle training, they taught those who were impulsive how to plan for their futures and their family’s futures, they offered child raising classes to them, they gave them baby supplies, and they connected them with medical care and other necessary services. For those who wanted to place their babies for adoption, they offered assistance, and for women who were suffering from past abortions, they offered counseling groups in which they could sort out their sorrow, anger, and guilt, and perhaps find God. Until it became legally inadvisable, they even helped young pregnant women find places to live after they had been turned out of their homes. Is this what it means not to care about the mothers?
On the other side, among advocates of the culture of death, compassion has never been big. For Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, the goals of abortion and contraception were eugenic: She wanted to reduce the birth rate among so-called inferior races. So what is the plan? Get vulnerable women into them, kill their babies, and shove them out the door. These days, maybe you can even make some cash by harvesting the tissue.
In fact, the compassion shown to mothers by crisis pregnancy centers is just why abortion proponents lie about and warn against them. Crisis pregnancy centers are too loving, too compassionate -- too effective. Ergo, people must be persuaded that they are evil.
So if we are speaking of people who merely hold pro-life opinions, we may well find that they are indifferent to mothers. But if we are speaking of people who have made a commitment to the cause of life, we find just the opposite. Therefore, your organization’s goal shouldn’t be persuading people who are committed to the cause of life to care about the mothers – they already do. Your goal should be persuading those who merely hold pro-life opinions to make real pro-life commitments.
And in speaking with those who accept the stereotype that pro-life people don’t care about the mothers, tell them about the saints who volunteer in crisis pregnancy centers. When I tell about them, critics always back down. “I didn’t know.”
A talkative young woman with a penetrating voice was holding court in a section of seats slightly ahead of me on the airplane, amusing her seatmates and flirting with the young man across the aisle. I was trying to read my book, but couldn’t entirely keep from overhearing.
One of her courtiers mentioned that a mutual acquaintance had been fired from his job for expressing an unwoke opinion about, I think, sexuality. She said “That’s good. He should have been.” Her next two sentences gave her reasons.
The first: “I can’t see why anyone would think that way. I don’t.”
The second: "I can't stand people who want to change your opinion."